Close this search box.
Photo: Netti Habel
Photo: Netti Habel

Beth Gibbons Returns to Wrestle with Mortality

The Portishead singer emerges with her first true solo project and it was well worth the wait.

by Tyson Lennox

Beth Gibbons returns nearly 30 years after the release of the first Portishead album with a decade long brewing solo project that opens with an acoustic guitar strum. If you were hoping for a return to her trip-hop origins this warning shot might initially deter you, but if you spend some time in the foamy and dreamlike world of mourning, loss, aging and acceptance that Gibbons has crafted you will find plenty of treasures floating gently on the surface and submerged deep below the waves of sound.

While nothing on this album is as folksy or stripped down as Gibbons’ 2002 album Rustin Man – a collaboration with Talk Talk’s Paul Webb — most of the songs on Lives Outgrown find the singer lending her voice to brooding, slow moving songs that haunt the mind and soul in an a way wholly distinct from her work with Portishead. Rather than having the instrumentation supply the necessary existential chill through surreal choices of soundscape, the uneasy feelings are entirely generated by the universal reality of her chosen subject matter; the death of a loved one, the end of a long relationship, the inescapable truth that the end is coming for everyone more quickly with every passing day.

The album’s driving single “Reaching out,” which was released alongside an innovative and surreal interactive music video created by Weirdcore — best known for their recent work with Aphex Twin — is the closest thing on the album to a return to familiar musical territory with Gibbons reflecting on the loss of love over dark and sinister electronic rhythms. “Where’s the love? Where’s the feeling? Where’s the belief in the words we’re breathing?” she pleads with the inevitable end.

Penultimate track “Beyond the Sun” is another standout moment building to a menacing tribal beat that is punctuated by chants, horns, and synth pads. You can almost read the credits rolling across the screen after the hero lays in defeat, just a few short steps away from a victory they will never obtain.

Over the course of 10 mostly gentle, haunted and anxious songs supported by Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris and producer James Ford, Gibbons exorcises her personal demons as an artist, woman, and a person approaching the twilight years of life. Familiar shimmers of past experimentation occasionally seep into the songwriting; strings that chill or soothe in a way that evoke the best of Johnny Greenwood, a sudden and unexpected horn section or swells of spectral synthesizers all make their mark on the album and elevate the project.

Overwhelmingly though, the focus here is on Beth Gibbons, her personal struggles, her anxiety of life and death, and of course the power of that unmistakable otherworldly voice. Don’t be lulled into a trance by the gentle soothing waves of sound or you may find yourself overtaken by the emotional turmoil lurking just below the surface.