Beth Gibbons returns from the abyss

On her stunning debut solo album, Lives Outgrown, the Portishead singer comes to terms with mortality and finds renewed purpose in the world of the living.

May 17, 2024
Beth Gibbons returns from the abyss Beth Gibbons. Photo by Netti Habel.  

Lives Outgrown is an album 10 years in the making after half a century in the ether. The debut solo LP from Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons, released six-and-a-half months before her 60th birthday, comprises 10 jaw-droppingly lush tracks, each a condensed saga of its own. The songs’ astonishing intricacy and immediate impact are testament to the benefits of taking one’s time.

Embedded in these chamber-pop symphonies are strange textures (particularly in the percussion) that come from untold hours of playful exploration, both in and outside the studio. Thematically, too, the record is full of oddly shaped reflective gems, the kind one can only find after making hard-won peace with life’s finitude.

“I realized what life was like with no hope,” Gibbons writes in the album’s bio, discussing the trials of her past decade: midlife and motherhood anxiety, menopause, and “lots of goodbyes” to lost loved ones. “That was a sadness I’d never felt. Before, I had the ability to change my future, but when you’re up against your body, you can’t make it do something it doesn’t want to do.”

Ultimately, she was able to emerge from this paralyzing fog. Her chief lesson, she says, is that when faced with such overwhelming pain, “you’ve got to be brave.”


The songs on Lives Outgrown are tragic, to be sure — songs about wasted time (“Lost Changes,” “Rewind”), withered dreams (“For Sale”), the weight of the past (“Burden Of Life”), and the fast-approaching abyss (“Floating On A Moment”) — but not total downers; colored by Gibbons’s appreciation of beauty, they contain passages of ecstasy.

“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,” she sings in the chorus of “Floating On A Moment.” The lyrics are far from optimistic, but the blanketing organ and string swells, gauzy backing chorus, and stately finger-picked guitars, along with Gibbons’s soaring vocals, make it all sound wonderful.

Later in the record, there’s a subtle turning point, perhaps a representation of the moment when Gibbons returned from her lamentations with a renewed sense of purpose. Lyrically, this change occurs most tangibly on “Oceans”: “But I will dive in the ocean / On the floor, I’ll gather my pride,” she sings after a verse that aches with suffering. “I will seek to undress the answers / On my knees, I’ll look evermore.”

This tenacious spirit is transferred to the fibers of the music as Lives Outgrown climaxes on the epic outro of “Beyond the Sun,” featuring triumphant sax squalls and powerful gusts of orchestral dissonance. The ensuing denouement, soft-and-sweet album closer “Whispering Love,” comes from a place of reconciliation with past tragedies, carrying a sliver of hope for the future.


Beth Gibbons returns from the abyss