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Portishead – Third

April 29, 2008

I am extremely impressed with Portishead’s willingness to return to their trade after a ten year hiatus. It can’t be easy to get back into the swing of things, but with all of their live performances running back to their curation of last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties to the release of this album, Portishead have proved that they haven’t lost their steam and they are still a staple of their genre.

On the first listen, two songs stood out to me especially, The Rip and Deep Water. Both songs have major tonalities and feature acoustic guitars. What this immediately reminded me of was the tenderness of It Could Be Sweet from the bands debut album, Dummy, although lyrically these songs are still dismal enough to be characteristic of Beth Gibbons’ style while It Could Be Sweet was a unique departure. The Rip showcases simple acoustic arpeggios before it transitions smoothly into a steady rhythm, with the same arpeggios played with a synthesizer. Deep Water is equally as tender and lovely. The song is a simple ukulele strum played over some of Gibbons’ most touching lyrics to date. There is no rhythm, just a fleeting minute and a half of grace and joy.

And then, those dirty little rascals, they use the innocence of Deep Water to highlight the deep contrast of emotions that this album showcases by exploding into its polar opposite. Right when you closed your eyes and fall asleep on the island surrounded by deep water, a B-52 with a giant “P” painted on the side nukes it. Machine Gun is as rhythmically catchy as the band has ever been. It is horny and bass heavy to the point that it is disturbing. Machine Gun is excellent, as it goes back to the vibe of Dummy by succeeding in being tragic as well as sexy, yet this time bare in comparison to the intricate dressings that might be found on the self titled album. A juggernaut of a single, with one hell of a scope.

If that self titled album could be considered a pinpointed rifle shot, Third is a spread from a sawed off shotgun. The years of preparation pay off with a slew of ideas that are successfully pursued throughout. A brutal waltz, gentle elegies, and disorganized shards of emotion are spread throughout the album, yet have several unifying elements. One of them is that they are designed to surprise with various extremes of different musical dimensions. Another is that most have booming bass tones.

The most important element, however, is Beth Gibbons’ vocals. Beth has always been the centerpiece of the music. Make no mistake, the group would be nothing without any one of its members. Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley have crafted music that is exciting and effective, but Beth is half of the puzzle. She has progressed stylistically as well. The self titled featured quite violent, wicked vocal performances. Those on Third are instead fragile, withering, and wispy. A defining moment on the album is near the end of the final track, Threads, where her voice seems to meld with the music. It is hard to say whether the sound is actually her, a synthesizer, a horn, or a guitar, so much as a pulsating body of sound. Then, percussion takes over just as the vocals reach their most expressive projection. We hear her fade out and periodic violent geysers of sound take over, separated by silence. Communication is clearly not an issue with the members of Portishead.

Portishead’s sense of danger and sexual tension finds new ground on Third. Some songs are left deceptively simple and bare, and others are haunted by instruments the band has never used before. In general, Third is dressed down compared to s/t’s dense soundscapes, making the pieces less detailed but more poignant. There are many surprises to be found here. Songs unravel themselves slowly, like on the previous two albums, but it becomes obvious that this album is much less lackluster than it seems at first listen, and it is really more organized, complex, and engaging than either of the preceding albums. Third is, like the other two Portishead albums, a sexy, hip, dark masterpiece, and it completes a triad of excellence.

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