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Beth Gibbons returns with ceremonial, atmospheric folk on Lives Outgrown

"Lives Outgrown"

Release date: 17 May 2024
Beth Gibbons Lives Outgrown cover
15 May 2024, 09:00 Written by Grace Marshall

Twenty years after Portishead’s sultry trip-hop treasure, Dummy (1994), acclaimed vocalist Beth Gibbons has returned with the dark pastoral Lives Outgrown in collaboration with producer James Ford.

Here, the extraordinary voice – loved for its unique combination of tortured vulgarity and refined quaintness – conjures Gibbons as a downcast prophetess, brooding on the passage of time and mortality. Its musings draw on much of the same mysticism as 2002’s Out of Season, her LP with Talk Talk’s Paul Webb (alias Rustin Man), whose acoustic folk elements and delicate vocal arrangements produced a treasure of a lead single in "Mysteries".

Like a Sybil in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Lives Outgrown sees Gibbons delivering hushed, tortured commentary on life’s inevitabilities – death, loss, accidents – the works. Lead single “Floating on a moment” ends by circling one doom-laden line between Gibbons and a somber children’s choir: “We’re all going to nowhere”. Further down the track list, “Lost Changes” considers time's relentless march, concluding that “time changes life changes life changes things”. The record is described as Gibbons’ “most personal work to date”, dealing with experiences of grief, change, and hopelessness – and it makes for a very conceptually decisive project, with a distinctive vocabulary of motion and stasis, weight and lightness.

That world-weary, time-hardened narration is wrapped up in a ritualistic, ceremonial arrangements – complete with pagan sounding drums, natural world sampling, and modal tonalities. Beneath celtic guitar lines reminiscent of Bert Jansch or Nick Drake boom dark, modal strings and percussive looping of found sonic elements like breathing, foot-stamping, and birdsong. In “Tell me who you are today”, the swooping groans of cellos become a dirge, whilst Gibbons dons the get-up of a kind of mystic ancient or druid, beckoning audiences to “come over here, listen to me”. Picture the crooked outstretched finger, the glinting eye in the shadows. Metallic, echoing drums – like the ones that rumble steadily on in the sombre march “Burden of life” – add depth and tension, reaching epic, military proportions in “Reaching Out”. Now and then, trad-folk elements turn Gibbons’ downcast observations into thumping jigs – like “Beyond the Sun”’s wild, pagan dance segment. “For Sale” is a theatrical, almost balletic set-piece, inviting the tossing of skirts and feathered masks. Dramatic foot-stamping and squealing fiddle elevate this scene to the shadowy intensity of the baroque.

The uncanny, too, plays a central role in this procession. Tortured, disjointed strings and agitated stabbing horns give an uneasy texture to “Oceans”. The finale of “Rewind” features aggressive, feedback-loaded guitar groans and some eerie sampling of children’s voices – as if to remind us that youth is short and death is, well, eternity. Not that you’d be likely to forget, with Gibbons’ extraordinary fragile, tortured vocals delivering reminders such as “all we have is here and now” and “no one knows, no one can stay”.

Yet these rich and atmospheric arrangements fail to completely offset the creeping, crawling melodies, built from inching steps of tones and semitones. Vocal lines are slow-moving and drone-like, especially compared to the occasional prancing guitar or violin: “Floating on a moment” is built around a bassline full of spacious intervals, with a leaping, unpredictable quality. More of this energy in vocal parts might have lifted the somber songwriting, which starts to seem a little dreary and doom-laden after forty minutes. The final track, “Whispering Love”, which recalls early Bridget St. John in its light-hearted, pillowy woodwind and sweet, fragile vocal delivery, offers some welcome respite.

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