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On Beth Gibbons' 'Lives Outgrown,' the Portishead singer invites us in

On <em>Lives Outgrown</em>, her first solo album, Beth Gibbons has never appeared so unguarded, so free of mystery's shroud.
Eva Vermandel
Courtesy of the artist
On Lives Outgrown, her first solo album, Beth Gibbons has never appeared so unguarded, so free of mystery's shroud.

Even at the height of Portishead's fame, singer Beth Gibbons seemed in self-selected exile from usual music-industry machinations. For 30 years, or ever since the Bristol trio stumbled into surprising stardom and helped usher in trip-hop as a genre, Gibbons barely participated in the promotional hubbub around infrequent releases. A 2019tally suggested she'd done just two brief interviews ever. Inone, from 1995, she mostly smiles, laughs and pantomimes uncomfortably; in theother, she stands shivering by a boat, then waffles about whether she wants to do press at all.

She seemed to know, however, exactly what to do with the ostensible windfall: Where others, like Jack White or J. Cole or even Neil Young turned major-label cache and earnings into their own eccentric empires, Gibbons made something much more familiar — an almost entirely private life. Aside from the occasional charitysingle, Grammy-winning guestappearance, symphonicturn or very rare candidphoto, Gibbons receded into the ordinary work of just being an adult.

It was stunning, then, when she seemed to fling open the doors to her home in early May, a week before the release of her solo debut, Lives Outgrown, at least for a frame. In a photograph posted to her Instagram account, Gibbons sat at a live-edge desk, turning upward to smile at the camera as she signed small white postcards to be mailed with her record's deluxe edition. "Final touches before my [album's] released," Gibbons wrote, signing off with a red heart. There is math homework shoved to one side of the desk, tins crammed with colored pencils to the other. Outside, through closed windows, the yard is a wash of triumphal springtime green.

The snapshot is a fittingly interior image for Lives Outgrown, where Gibbons eschews the complicated electronic textures and percussive snap-and-sway of her famous band for the sort of softer sounds one might get in a living room as Saturday night stretches into Sunday afternoon. The drum kit, after all, consisted of a paella dish and a cowhide water bottle. There is bowed saw and hammered dulcimer, baritone viola and pedal steel.

What's more, Gibbonsfirst hinted at Lives Outgrown in 2013, nearing the edge of 50. She is releasing it now at the precipice of 60. Gibbons' lyrics — delivered alternately with a velveteen softness or a tensile strength, her generational voice having gained grain while losing little flexibility — are suffused with the stuff that comes during any such transitional decade: talk of time, encounters with ache, hems of horizons. "Moon time will linger / through the melody / of life's shortening, longing view," she patiently sings during the closing pastoral, "Whispering Love."

As time advances, Lives Outgrown affirms, all we've ever known recedes a little more each day. Gibbons has never appeared so unguarded, so free of mystery's shroud. In Portishead, she always seemed to be summoning some unseen energy; it is surprising, reassuring, inspiring even how lyrically familiar Lives Outgrown seems, the testament of an uncanny singer simply making it through each day. It feels as if she's invited us over to sit a spell.

Indeed, Gibbons announced Lives Outgrown witha handwritten letter, the first sign she was letting the faithful into her bubble, at least briefly. "My 50's have brought forward a new yet older horizon," she offered. "It has been a time of farewells to family, friends, and even to who I was before." In the first 90 seconds of the album, she summons abandonment and self-doubt, crowning herself "a lonely love." Exhaustion and even a trace of aged callousness creep into the anxious "Burden of Life," an elegy for the energy and optimism we've had. "The time's never right," she concludes, her voice fading over the barbs of a baritone guitar, "when you're losing your soul." There is the abiding feeling that the party, if not already over, is soon ending: "Fooled ovulation, but no babe in me," Gibbons manages with a gasp, as if surprised at the starkness of her own confession.

All this talk of aging, things lost, nice desks piled with chores and crafts: Lives Outgrown probably suggests some precious domestic folk affair by now, all acoustic finery and coddled vocals. And to an extent, sure. Gibbons' pick-and-slide guitar during opener "Tell Me Who You Are Today" is a loping wonder, as are her pensive vocals, which feel forever like an exhalation. But the album's true majesty stems from arrangements that are simultaneously grand and intimate, as if Gibbons has tucked an entire symphony into her living room only to bend it at her command.

Though the London collective Orchestrate, led by Bridget Samuels, does appear on two tracks, much of Lives Outgrown is played by a tiny crew: Gibbons, former Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris and producer James Ford, whose multi-instrumental facility gives this music its breadth and gravity. (On two tracks, Ford musters 14 instruments himself, from the humble recorder to a panoply of keyboards.) The plangent strings and questioning clarinet during "Rewind," the noctilucent long tones and ominous whooshes beneath "Oceans," the percussive pulses and cobwebbed background vocals during "For Sale": These are meticulously composed songs, their nested layers having more to do with, say, the later works of Robert Wyatt than the revival of Vashti Bunyan.

These instruments are forever responding to Gibbons, too, whether mapping the depravity and confusion of "Rewind" or ferrying along her sense of existential drift in "Floating on a Moment." End to end, this record is a response to Gibbons' personal testimony — no misdirection or guile, just an opening to an interior.

Lives Outgrown follows the release of another long-anticipated solo debut from someone else in an iconic act: André 3000'sNew Blue Sun. No, Gibbons' heartfelt songs do not equal the hard left turn of that masterful rapper's "flute"-bound ascent into spiritual jazz. They do, however, represent the considered results of a similar retreat from the public eye, from making music, from meeting the demands of creative commerce.

This record, like New Blue Sun, feels like a concession to no one except oneself. It is a document of a life lived, a candid transmission from the many years that have passed since Gibbons' last songs. Just as André 3000's improvisations didn't absolutely sate all OutKast fans, Gibbons' inward acoustic hymns may miss some of Portishead's adherents. No matter: Lives Outgrown, where Gibbons molts any shell of expectation, is better for it, a little unexpected gift for which we've long been waiting.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Grayson Haver Currin
[Copyright 2024 NPR]