Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man

"God knows how I adore life," Beth Gibbons whispers at album's dawn, before it gives way to 10 songs that suggest the opposite; "so tired of life," she sings one track later, reveling (as much as someone sounding fresh, or not, from a nap can sound) in the contradiction. The singer, late of the lamented Portishead, and Paul "Rustin Man" Webb, ex of Talk Talk (wha?), have fashioned an easy-listening disc that's hard to take and harder still to keep from playing over and over and over and over. It contains the heavy hint of heartbreak, the loud whisper of desolation, string sections by which to hang one's self. Out of Season begins with the promise of hope--"a place of love and mystery/I'll be there anytime"--and ends with images of blossoms devastated by the cruel touch of an early winter.

It's Gibbons who is out of season, out of place, out of time; she sees beauty in the changing of fall's leaves, but fixates only on the inevitable bitter chill lurking in the heavy shadows of autumn. Not since Frank Sinatra was signed to Capitol, or Stephin Merritt was composing his 69 love songs, has anyone made so remarkable and unforgettable a concept album about romance; love's first flush warms like springtime, but its inevitable last gasp is frigid as a blizzard. Gibbons, reduced to a shadow during her days whispering over Geoff Barrow's laconic beats and hushed melodies, reveals herself a singer of remarkable range; she's Billie Holiday lost in the folk club, Dusty Springfield casing the cabaret, a fallen angel fronting a church choir. Those seeking familiar Portishead trademarks--trip-hop that stumbles slightly, like it's woozy with hangover, and production work from Adrian Utley--will find bits of what they've been looking for during that band's five-year hiatus. But this is more a massive attack of those tremulous late-night blues, when the bars shut down and you're left only with an empty glass and your own empty arms for warmth and comfort. Sounds depressing as hell, eh? Damn right, he said, bearing the smile of someone warmed and comforted by the next best thing.

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