Beth Gibbons’ ‘Lives Outgrown’ is a welcome surprise - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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Trip-hop-heads, brace yourselves; Lives Outgrown is not the Beth Gibbons we once knew. Back in the 90s, the British singer-songwriter pioneered the genre of trip-hop as the frontwoman of Portishead, which paired her breathy lounge-singer voice over retro-futurist production. It’s a sound that helped to define the 90s, but the 90s have been over for a while, and Gibbons clearly knows it. On her solo debut, Beth Gibbons takes a hard left turn; rather than retreading old ground, Lives Outgrown makes a foray into the acoustic that may alienate many hardcore Portishead fans. There are no breaks, no old-school samples, nothing to bob your head and pour a glass of wine to; instead, there are string sections, timpanis, wailing saxophones that don’t exactly lend themselves to the kind of chill, mellow listening that an album like Portishead’s classic debut Dummy does. The songs on Lives Outgrown are at once weary and anxious. Across these ten foreboding tracks, one gets the sense of thunderclouds rolling in overhead, the perfect bed of sound for Gibbons’ ominous lyrics and quivering vocals. It sounds less like a Portishead record and closer to the likes of Julia Holter or Joanna Newsom.

Gibbons manages to balance her maximalist arrangements with an appreciation for the smaller, more intimate sounds of her chamber.

While Lives Outgrown’s chamber-folk sound palette might come as a shock to some, it’s the natural next step for Gibbons, whose always had a love for the cinematic. The grandiose arrangements come naturally to Gibbons, whose voice sounds more harrowed than ever. In thirty years of stardom, Gibbons hasn’t lost any of her skill as a singer; Lives Outgrown lets us know that right up front with the opening track “Tell Me Who You Are Today,” which features Gibbons’ poetic lead vocals over swirling arrangements of her own voice. It’s an interesting start for an album that deals with mortality, loss, and aging, a command to know where one is in the present, when Gibbons seems overwhelmed by a long past and an uncertain future. “This place is out of control / and we all know what’s coming / Gone too far / Too far to rewind,” Gibbons howls on “Rewind,” which sways between brooding and chaotic. Cryptic and dower lyrics are nothing new to Gibbons, but over these dark instrumentals (a few of which were arranged by Beth herself), they’re more haunting than they’ve ever been.

It’s clear from the lyrics that Gibbons has lost a lot, but one thing she hasn’t lost is a keen ear for production. Co-producing with James Ford, the man that artists like Arctic Monkeys and Blur have called in recently to revitalize their sounds, Gibbons manages to balance her maximalist arrangements with an appreciation for the smaller, more intimate sounds of her chamber. Samples from children playing and birds chirping, tinny rattles of tambourines and mandolins, the accidental sounds of fretboard slide and Gibbons’ own breathing: all of these make for what is undoubtedly Gibbons’ most sensory project to date. At times, Gibbons couples this ear-tickling production style with tortured woodwinds (“Beyond the Sun”), bringing to mind the works of Colin Stetson.

Even after the initial shock of this late-career genre turn has dissipated, Lives Outgrown still manages to pull me in. This might not get much play with the Portishead fans, but that’s fine; the glory days of trip-hop have been over for about two decades now, and Gibbons clearly realizes it. This is a project that is, in multiple ways, about moving on; moving on as in finding ways to deal with loss and prepare for the worst, and moving on as in abandoning old sounds and trying something new. It’s a risk, but all great music is, and in the case of Lives Outgrown, that risk paid dividends.

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