Portishead - Third (Island, 2008)
I’ve resisted the urge to write a knee-jerk reaction to Portishead’s first studio album in eleven years. The lengthy gestation period itself demands that this record be given a considered response as does the fact that the music contained within it is dense and occasionally overwhelming. Whilst this is recognisably the same group of musicians that crafted ‘Dummy’ back in 1994, it’s a tenser, tauter, even more claustrophobic version of that group. What is new here is a palpable urgency and danger. ‘Third’ is dominated by a sense that the world around us is unfathomable and difficult with Beth Gibbons’ voice, less mannered here than on her collaboration with Paul Webb, frequently sounding vulnerable and lost, sometimes overwhelmed by the sinister and fearful contexts into which it is placed.
‘Third’ is therefore not the most immediate or transparently melodic of collections . Beth Gibbons often plays more of a textural or embellishing role, with little to resemble her full-bodied performances on tracks like ‘All Mine’ or ‘Glory Box’. Yet even the most elusive and wispy of songs here (the fragile ‘Hunter’ or the nightmarish ‘Machine Gun’) are grimly compelling and hypnotic. Somehow the sound is paradoxically both more organic and also more rigorous, occasionally even robotic. There’s a strong influence from German music – particularly Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia that distances this record from its predecessors. There was little chance of enveloping, slowly unfolding masterpieces such as ‘The Rip’ or ‘We Carry On’ appearing on ‘Dummy’. That album had a more soulful lilt that mitigated the fear and anguish and had the corollary of lending it to many dinner parties and coffee tables across the land.
‘Third’ is a much more challenging listen. Some of its sounds are jarring and unnerving, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of extreme discomfort. The generally faster pace suggests desperation and a strong impulse to flee and escape. The clanging guitars, mesmerising and insistent keyboard patterns and attacking drums create a sinister and menacing mood throughout. Even the more familiar-sounding tracks here (the downtempo ‘Plastic’ and ‘Hunter’) benefit from having those trademark sounds removed – there are no samples of vinyl crackle anywhere on ‘Third’. In addition, the stop-start structure of the pieces and increasing emphasis on texture and dynamics add unpredictability and tension. Barrow and Utley thoroughly explore the possibilities of minimalism and repetition here too – the synthesised drums on ‘Machine Gun’ are so bold and overpowering as to become nasty and abrasive.
There are so many devilish and outlandish tactics at work here – the way the drums on ‘Machine Gun’ never change, but are made to increasingly resemble an auditory vision of hell; the way it takes two full minutes before we even hear Beth Gibbons’ voice on ‘Silence’; the way a number of the songs end suddenly with absolutely no warning. Whilst the group seem to have tried very hard to be confrontational and uncompromising, the results never sound artificial or forced.
Yet amidst all this terror and horror, there are small moments of safety and beauty – the beautiful ‘Deep Water’, hinting back at an Appalachian folk tradition that Gibbons hinted at on her own album, but that has never previously featured in Portishead’s music. There’s also the exquisite introduction to ‘Small’, which is vaporous and haunting. Even that breaks unexpectedly into a stark and relentless attack of analogue keyboards, marching drums and industrial guitar sounds. Perhaps this is the point at which the group most successfully encapsulate a sense of discord and defeat.
I sympathise to some extent with Simon Reynolds’ internal debate regarding Beth Gibbons’ quality as a lyricist. Taken in isolation, her words could sound dangerously adolescent and cloying, sometimes verging on a parody of psychological torment. Yet the musical environment in which they swim tentatively makes it clear that the dislocation and vulnerability expressed here is convincing in spite of this. She writes in mercilessly concise phrases that seem like she is taking clumsy lunges for the necessary words to express her grief and confusion. Perhaps the fact that she doesn’t quite get there is actually an intrinsic part of this record’s power. It also helps that she has found a more individual and natural way of singing on her album – rarely does it feel that she is merely trying to impersonate her mentors here, the one significant problem that threatened to undermine the ‘Out of Season’ album.
‘Third’ is by no means an easy listen. For a mainstream comeback album, it is remarkable for its willingness to veer into genuine extremes. It is the microcosm of a world gone wrong, with priorities all askew, an articulation of human vulnerability amidst numerous pressures. It’s unpleasant for sure, but it’s also majestic, imperious and worryingly truthful.