Thursday, May 15, 2008
When I heard they were reuniting, I did everything I could to implement upon myself a ninja-style media blackout pertaining to all-things Portishead. I avoided every mere mention of the band, every piece of news, and every live cut orbiting the blogosphere for the last 6 months. In fact, in the two weeks following the release of Third, I must have made three trips to purchase this record, only to leave empty-handed every time. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t risk the potential for a band so intrinsically linked to my musical upbringing (not to mention a band I absolutely adore) to somehow fail artistically upon their reunion. It turns out that my hesitation was unjustified.
While Beth Gibbons’ vocal oeuvre has been noted to stand as a bit one-dimensional at times, Third sees her exploring new melodic and lyrical territory, all the while maintaining her ability to dig her nails into the ventricles of your heart. The album opens with “Silence,” a jungle meets break-beat offering that quells any expectations for what one thought the Third should/would sound like. This track, along with “Plastic” and “Hunter,“ inhabits a more jigsaw-like territory than any songs contributing to the velvety-flow of their first two albums; its elements cobbled-together in a jaggedly abrupt, but never distracting manner.
To contrast against the rip and paste aesthetic of the previously mentioned tracks, most of the remainder of the record’s songs are unbending and repetitive (but not at all in a negative way). Songs like “Nylon Smile” become intoxicating and hypnotic, nesting themselves into the dusty and unused corner of your conscious; a part you weren’t quite sure was there but are happy to discover, much in the same manner as Syd Barrett’s solo work (though, by a very different approach). “We Carry On,” with its proto-industrial rhythm fits this mold (it’s like Stereolab with teeth), as does “Machine Gun,” which is more creepy and paranoid (and adventurous) than anything the band has ever released. The song’s conclusion melts away into the territory of a lost Vangelis track, and would feel at home among Blade Runner’s end-credits. It should be noted, however, that the song-title and staccato-snare framework of “Machine Gun” were used on Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys 28 years prior to the release of Third (Portishead should’ve done their homework and named it something different, I guess).
Third’s standout tracks are “Small,” a gothic chamber-opera bookended by a synth-driven darkwave meltdown, and “The Rip,” which is perhaps the best song the band has ever written (unique and fragile, the song inches towards its conclusion of a claustrophobic heartbeat’s pulse and the whir of a lover’s blood coursing just beyond the boundary of their breast). It is undeniably beautiful, expectedly melancholy, and wholly addictive, which leaves the question: if Portishead had this kind of material in them all along, why have they been hiding?
by Jesse Robert W.