136. BETH GIBBONS & RUSTIN MAN – OUT OF SEASON (2002)

Chamber Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records

Perhaps now is the ideal time to fall in love with Out Of Season, an album so quietly bewitching you’d imagine it wrought by spectral engineers in some abandoned woodland cottage. But it is also a record which sounds completely in love with this world of ours – although one imagines its makers had to retreat from the furious pace of 21st century technosociety in order to rediscover how to be human again in the midst of it all. It is certainly tempting to draw parallels between how ‘out of season’ this record sounded in 2002, with the disconnect from normality which many of us are experiencing just now.

Yet somehow, the clock-stopping silence of lockdown might help us make perfect sense of it. And thankfully the arrangement is a reciprocal one – listening to Out Of Season again could help you to remember the simple joy of being. Things you had forgotten. Things you have discovered. Things you have rediscovered. When Beth Gibbons sings “God knows how I adore life” (one of the great opening lines on any album) on its otherworldly opening track ‘Mysteries’, as if sharing some secret stored up for millennia, it almost causes my heart to burst free from its flesh.

Out Of Season contains several such luminous moments: the whispering wind on ‘Sand River’, the little interjections on ‘Romance’ – like popcorn poltergeist or little elfin Chordettes dancing around your ear lobes; the luscious Kirby-esque arrangement on ‘Drake’ (no explanation necessary for the song’s title) or the hypno-electrical interference and echo on the creaking finale ‘Rustin Man’, the solitary track for which the Pitchfork reviewer at the time harboured any fondness. He proceeded to slate the rest of the album, presumably for its retreat from Portishead’s visionary sampladelics.

Portishead had indeed been visionary. But if they had embraced technology, it was never for its own sake, but provided a foil for the substance underneath. They borrowed a few hip-hop beats, and sampled liberally, but the heart of their sound  was locked in a past of cold war spy film themes, lavish orchestral soul, Morricone soundtracks and jazz ballad and torchsong. Gibbons had been possibly the most gifted British singer to emerge in 20 years, much more than the caricature she was often portrayed as: stooped over the mic, bleeding Billie’s blues, lassoed by rising coils of smoke. Rather she was a perfectionist, her timing and phrasing immaculate. Webb meanwhile had been an accomplished bass player for Talk Talk, up to and including their zenith, the pastoral masterpiece Spirit Of Eden, released in 1988. He had been involved in other projects subsequently, none of which were tremendously successful. The pair were accompanied here by Portishead’s Adrian Utley amongst several other seasoned musicians. The credentials of its creators were clearly impeccable, so it is little wonder that upon its release more than a few critics – Pitchfork aside – declared it to be amongst the greatest albums ever made.

Aside from its autumnal folk leanings, the album also boasts songs of real assurance and conviction: ‘Tom The Model’, with its brassy soul chorus and ambitious string arrangement the perfect antidote to ‘Show’s’ creeping piano figure. ‘Romance’ meanwhile has that widescreen ambition in abundance, the interplay of horns and strings pitching it somewhere between Kind Of Blue, Hawaii and some lost John Barry soundtrack theme. Perfect in other words.

https://youtu.be/7hasnaQsZWo

‘Funny Time Of Year’ sails closest to Gibbons’ work with Portishead – a brooding (“I can see no blossoms on the trees”) dread doowop drone ruptured by her sudden Grace Slick banshee release as the fuzz guitar splinters into an ecstatic Michael Karoli-esque spray of sound which then evaporates to reveal some medieval string picking and a ricochet of reverb cranked up to the max . Take my word for it, it is fabulous.

And if the lyrics often betray a lovelorn pessimism – that is hard to deny, hers are songs haunted by memory and defeat, but each always contains a kernel of hope and renewal – ultimately it’s an album whose introspective beauty treasures in its heart the little secrets that make life worthwhile.

‘Mysteries’

“God knows how I adore life
When the wind turns on the shores lies another day
I cannot ask for more
When the time bell blows my heart
And I have scored a better day
Well nobody made this war of mine
And the moments that I enjoy
A place of love and mystery
I’ll be there anytime
Oh mysteries of love
Where war is no more
I’ll be there anytime
When the time bell blows my heart
And I have scored a better day
Well nobody made this war of mine
And the moments that I enjoy
A place of love and mystery
I’ll be there anytime
Mysteries of love
Where war is no more
I’ll be there anytime.”

Therapy. (JJ)

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