Album Review: Beth Gibbons – Lives Outgrown

[Domino; 2024]

There’s a pivotal moment at the end of Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter where one of the protagonists looks out into the rain, and has an epiphany:

“For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor. Of the endless fluid passage of the humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who – one word – love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him, he felt a warning, a shaft of terror.”

It comes at a point when the book has eviscerated its protagonists hopes, like the death rattle of dreams. It’s a genuine and forlorn moment of rare poetry in the face of helplessness, an almost cosmic awe of the inner simplicity of life, reflected off the harrowing reality of unliving.

When Beth Gibbons responded to the question why she chose to record Lives Outgrown now, she said: “People started dying”. These three words exude the same aura as McCullers’ writing. It’s not glued to adolescent nihilism so much as the knowledge of abandonment that follows death, the rare sadness of true hopelessness.

Lives Outgrown is almost eschatological in its capture of these thoughts. With its sweeping strings, quietly thundering drums and lamenting folk guitars, it creates a complex tapestry of dense atmospheres that few musicians manage to capture. Often feeling like a more wistful variant of Gibbons’ main band – Portishead – the album’s philosophies seem to live within every second, as every moment gives birth to a new musical idea, a new shade of muted colour that expresses the soul’s struggle with loss. This struggle is represented by a recurring usage of percussion in the vein of Jaki Liebezeit’s work with Can: precise, polymorphic, unnervingly perfect.

“Lost Changes”, in its almost six minutes, is an incredible showcase of this approach. Like the closing track of a Western, the song floats through variations of its core melody, introducing one by one new instruments, which deliver different melodies on top of each other. Opening on acoustic guitar and percussion, the song soon adds bass and vocals, as Gibbons introduces a memento mori motif: “Hey, you over there / Change your heart instead of stare / Feel alive, hold your own / Forever ends, you will grow old / You’re gonna be”. A first chorus is introduced, electronics simulate the howling of wind. Each new element seems to evict a prior introduced one: strings, a choir, a bass. And then, at the halfway point, the song suddenly changes, finds a wholly new melody, with every element of the song prior slowly fading into new figurations, one by one, in a harrowing climax of melancholy, as the protagonist pleads “And all that I want you to want me / The way that you used to / And all that I want is to love you / The way that I used to.”

Much of Lives Outgrown might seem elegiac, but the record has genuine pop appeal. “Floating on a Moment” builds itself out of a rolling guitar melody that could be found on a Radiohead album, as it slowly expands its 60s folk backdrop with a ghostly background choir and children’s voices echoing the words “All going to nowhere, to nowhere”. It’s one of the most memorable moments on the record, in its expression close to Portishead’s quiet moments off Third, yet more revelatory in its acoustic minimalism – a twin to PJ Harvey’s White Chalk.

The nostalgic “Tell Me Who You Are Today” is equally infused with a sense of coastal scale, the percussion sharply measuring the song’s tempo as Gibbons unwaveringly adds layered vocal melodies, before sharp strings cut through the airy construct. There’s often a hidden sense of anxiety within these seemingly simple folk songs, hidden in the quick fingerpicking of the guitars, the quietly infused flourishes of electronica or hidden elements that ominously spider forward without ever reaching the foreground.

Like McCullers’ protagonist, Gibbons seems to gaze from within a secluded room out into a great expanse, but within the darkness or fog of the distance are the threat of ghosts and curses. “Rewind” embodies this sense of threat perfectly, creating a borderline industrial backdrop of metallic scratching where usually roaring guitars would mark a song into a genre frame. Lyrically confronting the strained relationship between man and nature, the track bleeds out slowly while the distant voice of a child roams into the foreground. The haunting is suggested, alluded to, never fully framed in its monstrous presence.

Like a Japanese horror film, Lives Outgrown reconstructs the origin of an unseen ghastly force that slowly takes lives and leaves emptiness in its wake. “Oceans” is the most painful expression of such a character, weaving a strange figure that seeks isolation within the waves: “I fake in the morning, a stake to relieve / I never noticed the pain I proceed / ‘Cause my heart is tired and worn / Without any question, I tried to forget”. Childlessness and sexual frustration are alluded to, making the figure an echo that can only feel real when diving into the titular ocean – a sort of parallel reality, maybe the state of dreaming as a timeless limbo. 

“Reaching Out” is more aggressive, enriched with horns and an almost RnB tone to Gibbons’ vocal performance, explosive and sharp. “Beyond the Sun” goes even further, finding an almost medieval tone of contrasting, abrasive melodies in shrieking horns and Gaelic choirs. These tracks suggest a brief glimpse of pastoral occult imagery, of wicker man-style rituals and Celtic paganism – a struggle for meaning that is retraced back to the origins of culture, sacrifices to the planets to appease and retain some sort of god, pleasing for a promise of the beyond. Gibbons isn’t presenting herself as helpless lost soul, but instead suggests through our collective subconscious associations with these ancient aesthetics that the struggle for meaning is an eternal echo through time. Even if we have forgotten the very processes of rituals – or the names of the entities they were meant to appease – there is still a deep understanding of these forms of prayer, the wild abandon that seems ingrained into the DNA of British mythology.

What expands Lives Outgrown into more than just a hauntologic study of British folk is its insistence to emote deep sorrow through the lost memories of those elements. We might be able to translate that one song has the broad melodic aesthetics familiar from the 1960s, or that another harkens back into the time before Christ (when melodies were abject and confusing, serving nameless gods and painted druids), but the percussive beat throughout the record tumbles, comments like a mute and hooded companion on the futility within the human struggle.

As in all those stories – Dante’s Inferno, McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Kurosawa’s Pulse, Harvey’s White Chalk – the journey away from society leads into a rich nether-realm of fantastic and abject eternal limbo, where we can only be witness figurations of a past that has become enshrined within its process, but never interfere. Gibbons has caught this feeling by conjuring formless characters who endure but never break free – except once. With “Whispering Love”, she finds a moment of reprieve, an awakening from the existential dread. In one brief moment, she catches the meaning behind living: “Far from our conscious mind / Lie those fallow fields / Where open hearts will wander / Sweet whispering love, come to me / When you can”. A deeply poetic moment, slowly giving way to the sound of birdsong. It’s a magnificent way to end this extraordinary and dark album, that means so much more than words can capture.