Beth Gibbons summons an abundance of instruments to relay her timeless voice through a stunning album of time’s passage on Lives Outgrown.

Release date: May 17, 2024 | Domino Recording Company | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter/X | Website

There are truths in life that can only be grasped with age. You can learn the lessons at a young age, but time changes, life changes things. For all of the time I spent in my young adulthood learning how the only constant is change, to embrace impermanence from Buddhist philosophers who seemed so at peace with this fact, the lesson of aging with this fact cannot be conveyed through anything but experience: the more positive change and mournful change you experience throughout life, the more those changes impact you. They are harder to throw off with a shrug and a meditation session. Our memories forbid this nonchalance, and we learn to grapple with attachment in new ways. The myriad points in life, like stars flaring up and burning out in the firmament, that we must accept change against our will require deeper reflection and strategy.

Beth Gibbons knows this well, well enough to write and record her first truly solo album on the topic on Lives Outgrown. Gibbons is most well known as the frontwoman of legendary trip-hop act Portishead whose merger of trip-hop beats with jazz, alternative, and electronica have left them with a legacy and gravitas untouched by any of their peers. They achieved their success and status without much in the way of interviews or playing the celebrity game. Gibbons’s voice, a potent instrument of breathy expression, lives in the hearts and minds of Gen X to Millennial music fans like a specter in the attic, emerging only sparingly since Portishead‘s last album Third in 2008.

Since then, Gibbons has popped up for collaborations ranging from Kendrick Lamar and JJ DOOM to Gonjasufi and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Her revered status as an artist has granted her the ability to work when and where she wants. So, Lives Outgrown, her first album billed as truly solo, arrives with a level of prestige and importance. Surely, the move to make this album came from a place of artistic need, a yearning to release and express herself that those collaborations cannot satisfy.

Working with multi-instrumentalist and producer James Ford (of Simian Mobile Disco) and Talk Talk‘s Lee Harris, Beth Gibbons has crafted something equally deserving of Portishead‘s legacy, but in a very different direction. Rather than the dancefloor, spy-film, and grungy sexiness fans may be familiar with, Lives Outgrown offers a chamber folk/pop approach that is brimming with immaculate depth. Guitars still form a baseline for these tracks, but throughout the album bowed saws, mellotrons, flutes, recorders, dulcimers, strings, and singing tubes appear calling to mind the free form studio creativity of Pet Sounds. As such, Lives Outgrown borderlines on the experimental, weaving small details and sudden instrument shifts into a jaw-dropping tapestry.

The first moment of many that had me combing floor debris from my beard happens during album opener, “Tell Me Who You Are Today,” whose gentle strummed guitars and dampened toms, joined by softly swelling cello, mellotron, and harmonium set the mood of the record, when Gibbons begins to layer vocals and harmonize with herself, violins and piano strings played with spoons pop in like a jump-scare yet subdued enough to not be shocking.

Tricks like this are sprinkled throughout, making each song a thrill to listen to, despite the relatively somber mood of the album. Take the addition of a children’s chorus in “Floating On A Moment,” for example. ‘I’m floating on a moment, don’t know how long/ no one knows, no one can stay/all going to nowhere/ all going, make no mistake,’ Beth sings as the choir pops in to emphasize ‘nowhere.’ It is a moment in music, like this whole song, that feels timeless. “Floating On A Moment” would fit in with late-era The Beatles as well as it would Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac or a Grizzly Bear album.

As Lives Outgrown moves on, the calamity of so many instruments at their disposal begins to manifest. At times, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach threatens to go full Tom Waits-railyard skronk and derail the immersive beauty. Like the electric-guitar-meets-Arabian-desert jam of “Rewind” seasoned with odd breakdowns and samples of children playing. Or the only danceable track “Reaching Out” that throws the only snare drum on the album at the end of a wonky shuffle full of haunted backing vocals and blaring horns. ‘Danceable’ in this case means Iggy Pop doing a lurching two-step through a desolate carnival of lost souls.

But the oddities on display are purposeful and serve to emphasize the themes of the lyrics. The children in “Rewind” reinforce a song about not being able to turn back to those memories in the face of inevitable death while simultaneously about how we’ve hit the tipping point of climate change. ‘Empty with our possessions/ and trouble is we still feel unfed/ hunting her down, sweet mother nature/ ’til nothing left if this goes on‘ she sings in indictment against our exploitive consumerism as much as it is a lament of lost innocence.

Gibbons is full of remorse throughout Lives Outgrown, remorse in the face of menopause (“Oceans”), the dreams and love (“For Sale”), and death of loved ones. On “Burden Of Life” she sings ‘The burden of life/just won’t leave us alone/and the time is never right/ when we’re trading the sun,’ over a backdrop that echoes Ennio Morricone‘s best work in Spaghetti Westerns.

Despite these subjects and the exhilarating instrumental forays, Lives Outgrown is consistently beautiful in its delivery. Gibbons voice and pop sensibility are not easily overshadowed. The chorus of “Lost Changes” is suitable for a classic French pop ballad by Edith Piaf or Jane Birkin whom Gibbons once collaborated with. The loveliness of the chorus is juxtaposed by a more declarative verse delivery. The ethereal vocals on “Beyond The Sun” are coupled with more of the children’s choir and intersected with heavily intense drums and something called a fuzz flute, resulting in a push and pull dynamic that delivers satisfying catharsis.

The closing track “Whispering Love” is pure beauty, a culmination of Gibbons’s poetry, the softness of flute and gentle guitar, field recordings of birds chirping, and melodies that envelop you like a warm parting embrace. There is a repetitive violin lilt to keep things from getting too comfortable, but by the end of the song, it feels natural and endearing. This is another track that can handily be placed among the pantheon of timeless songs.

Each and every song on this album seamlessly merges reflections on impermanence through varying subjects and lets the menagerie of instruments symbolize the ever relentless changes that life presents. Lives Outgrown stands as a peerless album of transcendent beauty not only this year, but well within the history of popular music. It is best listened to through headphones to emphasize the impressive amount of details and textures. Listen to it many times, like Dark Side Of The Moon, Pet Sounds, Songs In The Key Of Life, or Kind Of Blue, there is a seemingly endless amount of rewards to be found each time.

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