The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, September 27, 2002

One tends to forget the impact that a voice can have when one has not heard it anew for some while. In the case of Beth Gibbons, it's now five years since we last heard her singing something new - on the second, self-titled album by Portishead (four years if you count the Live At Roseland NYC orchestral reworkings in 1998) - and from the disappointing evidence of the latter, you could be forgiven for not expecting very much from her return. It's not that Portishead was in itself a bad album, but the title was symbolic of the aesthetic cul-de-sac into which Barrow, Gibbons and Utley appeared to have reversed into; essentially more of the same, and sometimes bordering on self-parody to such a degree that it's unsurprising that Simon Williams in NME unironically hailed it as "a great Goth album"! You wondered whether this project could go anywhere. Nor did Roseland really resolve the dilemma, merely adding to existing songs rather than opening up a new direction, apart from Gibbons' Janis Joplin-style epiphanic wailing on "Sour Times." It wasn't perhaps their fault; three years after the consolidation of a revolution that was Dummy, Portishead, as with Kraftwerk before them and the Aphex Twin after them, had found themselves in the unenviable position of music having caught up with them, instead of their still being ahead.

But I am still interested in Beth Gibbons' soul. She never does interviews, and the lyrical hints dropped on confessionals like "Biscuit" suggest some great gulf of otherwise unexpressed pain. So it is important that we know what she is thinking now.

While Portishead have not disbanded, Gibbons has been at work on a one-off project with ex-Talk Talk bassist and O'Rang frontman Paul Webb, the latter using the pseudonym of Rustin' Man. The resulting album, Out Of Season, is due for release at the end of October; but having listened to an advance copy I can tell you now that this is a record which will quietly devastate you.

As Dummy started with a song called "Mysterons," so Out Of Season starts with a song called "Mysteries." A new start? Vague foghorns and waves can be heard distantly; and then a choir, like the nymphs in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, or simply there to comfort. An acoustic guitar enters, and above it the voice of Beth Gibbons; very quiet, palpably trembling, palpably singing a folk song. There is the same sort of tiny but irreducible unease which you get from the songs in The Wicker Man, but amongst other things it's a surprise to hear Gibbons' West Country burr come through her singing much more strongly than it does in Portishead. The words are no less decipherable, and my copy didn't come with a set of lyrics, so like the Cocteau Twins you have to listen hard and try to hear the voice as an instrument.

What I do know is that Gibbons on this album muses on isolation, growing old and mortality. Much is made of the beauty of nature and also the grief which it can bring. Listen to the song "Sand River" where she alternately celebrates and laments autumn. It immediately calls to mind that especially bright but poignantly shadowed shade of yellow/orange which comes with autumnal sunlight; acknowledgement of things past, but readiness for things to come.

The only time on the album when the volume is really turned up is on the comparatively straightforward R&B tune "Tom The Model" which doubtless will appear as the single. Fine of its sort, but really too Jools Holland/real ale for my tastes, and something of a compromise in the context of the rest of the album.

The song "Snow" with just voice and piano, is special, however, and is fit to stand alongside the Joni Mitchell of Blue. A lament for things she'll never have, a foreboding of the coming winter. Like Joni, she can plead and seduce and yet still sound in control of herself. This beautifully dangles above the abyss of pure silence.

On "Romance" we enter what initially seems to be a Billie Holiday pastiche, complete with a Nelson Riddle-style orchestration (Webb comments that "any of these arrangements could have been done in the '40s," which isn't quite the case, but we'll come to that). Halfway through, however, it dovetails into Beth singing "That's not me" over a very Portishead-esque unresolved minor chord sequence which could never have been dreamt of in 1956. Distant electronic and guitar noises shimmer in the far distance to remind us what century this is (see, I told you we'd come to it). Webb on this album always seems ready to derail our aural expectations with unexpected touches.

On the next three tracks, we return to quiet meditations over folk guitars. "Resolve" is a sober reflection on ageing in the "May You Never" direct-speaking style, but the off-kilter effects on "Spyder" (a Richard Thompson influence?) reminds us of the psychosis which lurks beneath the best of British folk-rock. You could be put on your guard by a song called "Drake" - I mean, this week we've already had Beck, ahem, paying tribute to "River Man" on Sea Changes - but again this doesn't quite go where you'd expect, and again harmonically and emotionally isn't really that far away from Portishead. The increasingly familiar environment becomes more shocking when you see it in full, like a giant creature rising from the waves seen close up.

(and, incidentally, if you want a real radical reworking of "River Man" hear Norma Waterstone's to say the least startling version on her last album)

The environment becomes even more apparent with the lengthy "Funny Time Of Year." Everything around Beth which was previously familiar - musically - now becomes gradually alienating again. Electronics creep in subtly. The vocal is subliminally subverted. A union is achieved, finally, between what Talk Talk achieved on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock and what "trip hop" is still, in my view, capable of achieving.

Finally, on the song "Rustin' Man," we find ourselves back in the world of Dummy. Gibbons' soul having been naked and intimate for the rest of the album; she now decides it's too painful and retreats behind her cover of electronic fog. A distended post-blues soliloquy which wouldn't have been out of place on Walker's Tilt. The only end possible to this deeply touching but profoundly unsettling record.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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