Portishead's Third has been a long time coming, the result of a lengthy creative topor following 1997's dark, distinctly underrated album Portishead. Importantly, though, they've shaken it. While the core trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley remains, this is quite a different band to Portishead's 90s incarnation: gone is the slo-mo turntable scratching and smoky jazz feel, replaced by heavy, brooding rhythms, vintage-sounding electronics, and spindly guitar. Still present, though, is that sense of emotional fracture and deep gloom. "Silence" opens with a dense drum loop which suddenly falls away to reveal Gibbons' voice, cold but magnificent: "Wounded and afraid, inside my head/Falling through changes". "Nylon Smile", meanwhile, is a fine example of Third's occasional folksy edge, an acoustic song reminiscent of Leonard Cohen that, around its midpoint, lifts off on a propulsive electronic rhythm, Gibbons holding one clear, hard note as synthesisers bubble beneath. At times, it's a harsh and foreboding listen: the electronic drums of "Machine Gun" might put off the listener hoping for smooth dinner party fare. But Third is a brave and forward-thinking return, and one great enough to justify its lengthy gestation. --Louis Pattison
Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Mystery burns at the heart of Portishead, lurking deep within their music and their very image. From the outset they seemed like an apparition, as if their elegant debut, Dummy, simply materialized out of the ether in 1994, as their stately blend of looped rhythms, '60s soundtrack samples, and doomed chanteuse vocals had only a tenuous connection to such Bristol compatriots as Massive Attack and Tricky. Soon enough, Portishead's unique sound was exploited by others, heard in swank clubs and high-end dinner parties on both sides of the Atlantic, a development that the trio of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons, and Adrian Utley bristled at instinctively, recoiling into the darker corners of their sound on their eponymous 1997 sophomore album before fading back into the ether leaving no indication when they were coming back, if ever. They returned 11 years later, seemingly suddenly, with Third, supporting the album with candid interviews that lifted the veil from their personality, yet the mystery remained deeper than ever within their gorgeous, unsettling music.
That strain of uneasiness is a new wrinkle within Portishead, as in the '90s they favored a warm, enveloping melancholy, a rich sound that could be co-opted and turned into simple fashion, as it was by band after band in the heyday of the swinging '90s. So many groups grabbed ahold of Portishead's coattails that it's easy to forget that in 1994 there was no other band that sounded quite like Portishead -- not even Massive Attack and Tricky, who shared many surface sounds but not a sensibility -- and that is just as true in 2008, years after trip-hop has turned into history. Their cold, stark uniqueness isn't due to a continuing reliance on the cinematic textures of Dummy, although there are echoes of that here on the slow-crawling album openers "Silence" and "Hunter," songs just familiar enough to act as reminders of how Portishead are special, yet just different enough to serve notice that the trio is engaged with the present, even if they've happily turned into isolated recluses, working at a pace utterly divorced from the clattering nonsense of the digital world. Third is resolutely not an album to be sampled in 30-second bites or to be heard on shuffle; a quick scan through the tracks will not give a sense of what it's all about. It demands attention, requiring effort on the part of the listener, as this defies any conventions on what constitutes art pop apart from one key tenant, one that is often attempted yet rarely achieved: it offers music that is genuinely, startlingly original.
Surprises are inextricably intertwined throughout Portishead. There are jarring juxtapositions and transitions, as how the barbershop doo wop of "Deep Water" sits between those twin towers of tension of "We Carry On" and "Machine Gun," the former riding an unbearably relentless two-chord drone while the latter collapses on the backs of warring drum machines. Echoes of Krautrock and electronica can be heard on these two tracks, but that very description suggests that Third is conventionally experimental, spitting out the same hipster references that have been recycled since 1994, if not longer. These influences are surely present, but they're deployed unexpectedly, as are such Portishead signatures as tremulous string samples and Utley's trembling guitar. Out of these familiar fragments from the past, Portishead have created authentically new music that defies almost every convention in its writing and arrangement. As thrilling as it is to hear the past and present collide when "Plastic" is torn asunder by cascading waves of noise, Third doesn't linger in these clattering corners, as such cacophony is countered by the crawling jazz of "Hunter" and the sad, delicate folk of "The Rip," but a marvelous thing about the album is that there's no balance. There is a flow, but Portishead purposely keep things unsettled, to the extent that the tonal shifts still surprise after several listens.
Such messiness is crucial to Portishead, as there's nothing tidy about the group or its music. Experimental rock is often derided as being cerebral -- and this is surely enjoyable on that level, for as many times as Third can be heard it offers no answers, only questions, questions that grow more fascinating each time they're asked -- but what sets Portishead apart is that they make thrillingly human music. That's not solely due to Gibbons' haunting voice, which may offer an entryway into this gloom but not its only glimpse of soul, as the perfectionism of Barrow and Utley have resulted in an album where nothing sounds canned or processed, the opposite of any modern record where every sound is tweaked so it sounds unnatural. Third feels more modern than any of those computer-corrected tracks as the group's very sensibility mirrors the 21st century, where the past is always present. Then, of course, there's that rich, fathomless darkness that Third offers, something that mirrors the troubled days of the new century but is also true to that shimmering, seductive melancholy of Dummy. Here, the sad sounds aren't quite so soothing, but that human element of Portishead gives them a sense of comfort, just as it intensifies their sense of mystery, for it is the flaws -- often quite intentional -- that give this an unknowable soul and make Third utterly riveting and endlessly absorbing.
Can an album really be a departure if it's the first thing a group's released in 11 years? It ideally would be for a genre-bound band turned brand name like Portishead: As much as there is to miss about the mid-late 1990s, the time for any trip-hop revival is far into the future, and picking up right where they left off in 1997 would make Portishead some kind of sad cipher coasting on the fumes of an exhausted trend-- something they've always been above. If the voice of Beth Gibbons wasn't so ingrained in the consciousness of a whole generation of indie kids, you could look at Third as a sort of re-debut; it posits that the sound of Portishead can actually exist even after the group excises every possible remnant of trip-hop from it.
As radical reinventions go, Third is surprisingly natural. You can credit Gibbons as the familiarizing factor: She possesses a voice that seems impossible to shackle to just one musical setting, even if it already sounds perfectly at home in brooding downtempo ambience. As the most recognizable component of the group, she has the most established stylistic tendencies-- subtle quivers, an ability to go from hushed to piercing without laboring over the transition, an aching timbre that expresses anxious vulnerability better than nearly any other singer-- and she slips back into them comfortably when she needs to.
But it's also a style that works in more contexts than we've previously heard, something she hinted at with Rustin Man on 2002's folk and jazz-influenced Out of Season, and Third is the culmination of this. Pitted against the jarring mechanical stop-starts of first single "Machine Gun" or the chase-scene-paced opener "Silence", Gibbons sounds like both a defiant accuser and someone clinging on for dear life. Quieter numbers, like the slow-build electronic ballad "The Rip" or the softer moments of the cabaret highwire act "Hunter", highlight the fragility in her voice. And since almost every song on Third addresses some sort of emotional or mental helplessness-- typically a deep and profound sense of loss and isolation-- it's almost as though this shift in sonic identity is there to mask the fact that this is an incredibly bleak record lyrically. Gibbons' wounded tone can take commonplace-on-paper sentiments ("I'd like to laugh at what you said but I just can't find a smile"; "I can't deny what I've become/ I'm just emotionally undone") and give them a kind of pathos that's almost uncomfortably voyeuristic to listen to.
As for how the music itself has changed, long story short: Third is a psychedelic rock album. It opens with a rhythm that's nearly twice as fast as almost everything else Portishead have done, the percussion on most of the songs is frequently muffled or buried under layers of noise and sometimes just stops short of being non-existent (though it's heavy and propulsive when it does make itself known), and their keyboards and strings have graduated from relaxed tension into dissonant rumbles and shrieks. There's a brief acoustic folk song ("Deep Water"), an abrasive and jittery electro-industrial number ("Machine Gun"), free jazz horns ("Magic Doors"), analog freakouts from the United States of America-fueled early days of electronic psych ("The Rip"), and a song that sounds a bit like Clinic's droning, rhythmically dense garage-kraut, except somehow spookier ("We Carry On"). Portishead as you previously knew them are represented, barely, by the last song on the album-- the sleepwalk-paced, David Axelrod-esque "Threads"-- and even then, its intermittently fuzzed-out tension-and-release dynamic would've made it one of the harshest-sounding songs on Dummy or Portishead.
You could say that this would be unrecognizable as a Portishead album without Gibbons' voice, and you'd be sort of right; guitarist and contributing songwriter Adrian Utley mentioned in a recent New York Times article that one of the rules they set for Third was that they couldn't fall back on any instruments-- or even any trademark sounds-- that they'd used on previous albums. But their style here isn't particularly out of character, comparatively experimental as it is; Utley's guitar still twangs sharply when it's not doing things like interjecting "Iron Man" growls in "Hunter" or splintering into Syd Barrett-isms at the coda of "Small", and the melodic identity that he and Geoff Barrow built on a foundation of minor keys and sinister grandeur still holds sway. In the terms of a group that was frequently lumped in with film composers as much as Bristol axis peers, Portishead's Euro-cool John Barry intrigue has been pushed into the disquieting territory of John Carpenter's compositions and Bernard Herrmann's Alfred Hitchcock scores.
Keep in mind just how out-of-nowhere this all seems: The notion of a new Portishead album had, for many fans, fallen out of the realm of possibility. If Third had come out in 1999 or 2000, maybe writers would be calling it Portishead's answer to Massive Attack's Mezzanine, another third album by trip-hop icons eschewing dinner-conversation music by embracing anxiety and moodiness. Released today, it instead feels like a staggering transformation and a return to form that was never lost, an ideal adaptation by a group that many people didn't know they needed to hear again.
-Nate Patrin, April 28, 2008