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8 Tracks: Portishead's Beth Gibbons is a 'passenger on no ordinary journey'

Beth Gibbons' first solo album, <em>Lives Outgrown</em>, is out May 17.
Netti Habel
Courtesy of the artist
Beth Gibbons' first solo album, Lives Outgrown, is out May 17.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

In 2011, Portishead performed two nights in a row at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival when it was held in Asbury Park, N.J. For me, it was surreal to see such rapturously cool music where I'd partly grown up; the boardwalk had been abandoned for decades, and here was this band that made its name on crumbling deconstruction. In witnessing a sublime cathedral of sound, Beth Gibbons was our steadying force, so imagine my shock when, during a particularly aggressive performance of "We Carry On," she stage dove and crowd surfed. Her smile in that moment lives in my heart for always.

"Can't you see the taste of life?" she asks in that song. Now 13 years since that concert and 16 since Portishead's Third, Gibbons not only returns with a solo album but also that sentiment. Or rather, she's thinking beyond this life and the wonder this time and after has to offer. This week on 8 Tracks, these songs explore what happens next — on mortality, in love, in hope — and what we conquer or relinquish to meet it. (Oh, and I tagged in my colleague Robin Hilton to write about his boyhood fave Billy Joel, who happens to have a new song that ties up all these themes in a piano man-shaped bow.)

Beth Gibbons, "Floating on a Moment"

In recent years, Beth Gibbons has performed Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and sang on a Kendrick Lamar track; clearly, the beauty of her haunted voice has the range. That's key context for "Floating on a Moment," from the forthcoming Lives Outgrown, which actually has a bit more in common than expected — an internal exploration that feels first, then sounds. Gibbons makes peace with being "a passenger on no ordinary journey," her voice now truly a wandering star aware of its limited time to burn, felt in creaking percussion, hammered dulcimer and a children's choir.

Angélica Garcia, "Juanita"

Angélica Garcia's 2020 album — and the Tiny Desk she performed just before the pandemic hit the fan — are personal favorites. If Cha Cha Palace embraced her "Salva-Mex-American" heritage with vibrantly colored electro-pop, "Juanita" sinks into a slinky, slowed-down cumbia with a full-throated yawp that summons spirits.

Burial, "Dreamfear"

Burial has always shown his hand — in vinyl crackles, tape hiss, reused samples — but in service of world-building disintegration. For some, that gloom can mirror our devastation; admittedly, I'd grown weary. Yet this side-long track for the British producer's XL Recordings debut breaks apart and blooms Burial. Across 13 minutes, a nervous energy fuels a clubber's lament — a multi-movement, deeply-layered hyperactive head rush disrupted by moments of ambient grit.

HJirok, "Maly Men"

Escapism is rooted in reality: We see the world as it is and wonder what it could be. The Iranian-born, Berlin-based Kurdish singer Hani Mojtahedy sees the violence that regularly strikes her homeland and created a fantasy to make sense of it. She describes HJirok as a mythic figure who navigates a utopian world, yet seems to innately understand her traumatic diaspora. Field recordings of Sufi drums and a setar player form a bed of mystic dub made with producer Andi Toma of Mouse On Mars. Mojtahedy, a singer trained in Persian vocal traditions, slips between sounds that swirl like the echo of another world.

The Clash, "Rock the Casbah"

According to KEXP, it's International Clash Day, a holiday the station totally made up a little over a decade ago. So it's only fitting that today's episode of The Cobain 50, a well-researched KEXP podcast about Kurt Cobain's list of his top 50 albums, celebrates a curious entry. Personally, Combat Rock is my favorite album by The Clash — the pop experiment heavily informed by the Caribbean rhythms and sounds made by immigrants in London. That Cobain picked this album over London Calling or Give 'Em Enough Rope feels contrarian, but also in keeping with Nirvana's melodically gritty dichotomy — music that could ostensibly play at a dance party, yet offer windows into our collective trauma.

Adia Victoria, "Went for a Ride"

If you search "Went for a Ride," the results primarily feature white country artists who have performed the song — some metadata even gives one of them authorship. But take one look at the opening line and ask yourself for whom it's written: "He was as black as the sky on a moonless night." Decades ago, Alice Randall penned a number of country songs that became hits for white artists. On My Black Country: The Songs of Alice Randall, several Black artists reorient the stories back to their intended roots. Adia Victoria, ever a shaper of atmosphere, meets the lyrics — already thick with blood and regret — at their warning, whooping up a dead-stared holler.

Talia Schlanger, "Narrow Bridge"

Full disclosure: Talia Schlanger is a former colleague from WXPN's World Cafe, a brilliant interviewer with a keen sense of timing and tact. In 2019, she went back home to Toronto to make music and we are better for it. "Narrow Bridge" is the song from Grace for the Going, her debut album, that I can't quit. In it, Schlanger is an empathetic ear for someone's wounded heart; her voice sure in its love, gently cradling ours. The vaporous arrangement sits somewhere between The Civil Wars' wondrous yearning and Daniel Lanois' folkloric ambience, building to the moment just before the burst of tears.

Billy Joel, "Turn the Lights Back On"

It'd be easy to call Billy Joel's "Turn the Lights Back On" his best new song in decades — his last pop album, River of Dreams, came out more than 30 years ago. But his surprise return is also one of the standouts of his entire storied career, a soaring piano ballad with an earworm melody that finds the 74-year-old singer reflecting on regret and lost love while pleading for one more chance. Joel's best work frequently traffics a healthy dose of nostalgia, usually for a place and time long out of reach. In a stacked catalog of classic ballads, "Turn the Lights Back On" will stand as one of his most affecting. —Robin Hilton

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