Without warning, bands can and do often up and say, “and now for something completely different.” For evidence, check out the catastrophic switch from No Doubt’s 2000 released ska-punk finale Return Of Saturn to the cheesy electro biscuit Rock Steady from the next year. They went from Sublime approved rock to cleavage pop on a dime and haven’t looked back since. History is swimming with such examples. So, with an excruciating ten-year, unofficial hiatus separating Third and the eponymous second Portishead studio release, one should naturally expect massive change.
Dummy, a Mercury Prize winner, and the self-titled sophomore record were respectively released in 1994 and 1997. They were both prime examples of the trip-hop fusion of hip-hop and ethereal downtempo, and remain seminal works of the genre. Coincidentally, ‘94 to ‘97 marks the peak and sad decline of trip-hop, so expecting a return to an all but dead form would purely be wishful thinking on the listener’s behalf. For reasons beyond the grasp of mere mortals, trip-hop is not coming back, nor its bastard cousin illbient. Light a candle if you must.
As such, a first listen to the unimaginatively titled Third can be a little confusing or even off-putting. The static laden samples and sluggish scratching are gone, and most electronic effects have been pushed into a warmly analog Moog and Theremin role. However, patience and a little faith reveal Portishead third LP to be a work of sublime subtlety and dynamic depression easily on par with its critically adored predecessors. Building on the second album, this is their most “live” studio work yet, as well as being their most obviously diverse effort.
Despite its minute and a half length, “Deep Water” immediately sticks out. All there is to it is a ukulele, the always-sorrowful voice of Beth Gibbons, and a little bit of barbershop backup vocalizing. It’s not one of the album’s best tracks, but I’ve listened to their two studio albums and watched the live DVD a hundred times and I’ve never heard anything remotely like it. That’s about the definition of putting it all out there—they’re not playing it safe by any means.
“The Rip” is a fine piece, starting off with a humble Theremin howl and a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Gibbon’s vocals come in almost immediately and continue till about halfway. Then, a forceful drum track and moog bassline harmonizing with the acoustic fade in, as Gibbons’ sigh becomes electronically extended. Imagine Goldfrapp fronting Numbers and you’re close. Following that, “Plastic” is probably most like the mid-‘90s Portishead we came to worship. It’s based in creepy organ and vocal sorrow, but with an erratic, choppy rhythm section snippet and warbling knock on wood sample that pine for the old days.
Channelling Broadcast mixed with a little Adult., “We Carry On” has an up-tempo, tribal beat and steady moaning keyboard. The whine doubles up about two and a half minutes in, cueing a righteous guitar solo that punctuates the verses. It’s like post-drone-rock, only more cool than that looks on paper. Going for the other end of the spectrum, “Magic Doors” is cut from a pure classic rock cloth. Starting from the dead TV channel tone, it has a punchy Bonham beat, an eerie accordion sound, a nice round bassline, and a moving piano that underscores the chorus. Surprisingly, it also has more cowbell, with an almost Chambers Brothers “Time Has Come Today” reverb. Bruce Dickenson would put his pants on for that one.
Overall, Third appears to give jazz guitarist Adrian Utley more reign in songwriting, while turntablist producer Geoff Barrow has put his coffin away in lieu of outboard analog gear. Yet, as always, the unsettling lounge singer stylings of Beth Gibbons is the focal point. As witnessed by the slightly off Out Of Season collaboration with Paul “Rustin’ Man” Webb of Talk Talk, Gibbons’ terribly unique tones don’t tend to work all that well over sweetly organic instrumentals. She needs a little abrupt weirdness in her music or she stands out for the wrong reasons. Repeated exposure to “Deep Water” will reveal that to you, sure enough (in context, it works… just imagine a whole album of that).
So, on their third studio album, Portishead have succeeded in striking the careful balance between progressing their sound to where it should be 11 years later and retaining the esoteric creepiness that makes them tick. I don’t hear much in the way of clear, winning singles, not like the first two albums, but that seems to work in the album’s favor. Third is a complete work of art to fully immerse yourself in, listened to start to finish. It will be a little awkward initially, like Garth’s feeling towards putting on new underwear. After a while, it will become a part of you. History will eventually see it rank on par with the rest of their legendary works.