Portishead’s Beth Gibbons Returns Solo, Doleful Yet Determined

The album was assembled gradually over the last 10 years, while Gibbons occasionally resurfaced with other projects: composing film scores, performing Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, collaborating with Kendrick Lamar on “Mother I Sober.”

Produced by Gibbons and James Ford (of Simian Mobile Disco), “Lives Outgrown” relies on hand-played instruments, but it often juxtaposes them in surreal ways. Ford alone plays a huge assortment — guitars, dulcimer, keyboards, woodwinds, brasses, even musical saw — while the drummer Lee Harris (from Talk Talk), who shares some songwriting credits, uses all sorts of found percussion, including boxes and kitchenware. For the first time in her catalog, Gibbons allowed herself to layer on backup vocals, which materialize like a ghostly sisterhood.

Her new songs take a long view: pondering lifetimes and generations, connecting personal concerns to planetary ones. In “Rewind,” with a 5/4 beat and melodies tinged with Arabic modes, she hints at climate change, singing, “Now that we have had our fun/Time to recognize the damage done.” Drums and percussion erupt behind her as she worries that “The wild has no more to give/Gone too deep, gone too far to rewind.”

“Lives Outgrown” is full of reflections that sound hard-earned; there’s new grain in Gibbons’s voice. “Forever ends, you will grow old,” she admonishes in “Lost Changes,” a slow-strummed march with echoes of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” In “Beyond the Sun,” a modal drone that gathers an increasingly insistent drumbeat, she wonders, “If I had known where I’d begun/Would I still fear where I might end?”

“Lives Outgrown” isn’t a narrative, but its music is built to be heard as an entire cycle. It works its way through doubt and need and despair to find a chastened but worthwhile perseverance. The album begins and ends with pastoral guitar ballads, but drums smolder and boil over along the way. In “Reaching Out,” with a beat and bass riff that hint at Moroccan gnawa music, Gibbons rides a crescendo of frustration and longing: “I need your love to silence all my shame,” she sings.


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