Review: Portishead - Third (2008)

 Genre: trip-hop
 Label: Island Records
 Country: United Kingdom
 Listen: MySpace

After a decade of (recording) absence the trip-hop masters of Bristol return with something not quite like their previous efforts. While the characteristic very melancholic voice of Beth Gibbons, always seemingly on the verge of breaking, clearly marks this as a Portishead album a lot of warmth and subtlety of the previous work has disappeared.

From the start of the record, Silence an opening sample of a Portuguese man talking about the number three, it is clear that something is wrong. The violin once again features in the music, but it is more haunting than comforting. It floats over an abrasive and strangely structured support of piano, distorted guitar and drums, only to all suddenly drop when the vocals, subdued drumming and a more subtle guitar line come in... After building a little tension the first part more or less come back while the vocals keep displaying their utter despair. The coda kicks in, quite dissonant and disconcerting, and develops for a while until it just stops. This song has taken you on quite a ride without giving much to hold on to. The second track, Hunter is more relaxed and more in line with their previous work, while still offering the sudden shifts and weird sounds as found in the opening track. Then it's off to Nylon Smile, a bit psychedelic/folky track. It strongly depends on the drawn out vocal lines, which go on for a bit after the music ends, which only adds to their impact. The Rip ends the first third of the album. This song is near being danceable, after a nice guitar-drive intro a driving beat kicks in and the synth takes over the guitar line in an almost synth-pop fashion. It even seems there is some light at the end of the tunnel... The video for this song is shown below.

After this momentary relative comfort another of the darker tracks kick in, Plastic. Again very much driven by the despairing vocals. The music switches between subtle guitar lines and harsh electronic sequences. After that We Carry On is up, and it indeed carries on. It has, once again, a clear driving beat and bass line that provide the basis for the vocals and (slightly detuned) guitars to alternately and simultaneously stab into your brain. It very effectively packs quite a punch. Then, suddenly, a twangy ukulele kicks in on the next song, Deep Water! This song even has some backing vocals reminiscent of music from the 20's/30's/40's (whatever). It's the shortest and most, well, normal song on the record and thereby serves as a certain breathing point on the record. The second third of the album is closed by Machine Gun, which starts with a... machine gun-like drum track. The frailty and flow of the vocals is very much contrasted by the harshness and disjointed beat under it. It goes into a more open drum beat, then a weirdly distorted 'melody' line before kicking into a pretty much 80's-approved synth ending. The video for this song can be seen below.

Small starts with a subtle guitar line and soft vocals, before shifting to a cello interlude and then a harsh pattern of stumbling drums and synth with a guitar lead. This dissolves into the cello part again, then drawn out vocal lines and finishes with (again) the harsh drums and synths, but now almost military. For a little time of easier breathing the more traditional Magic Doors gives us a hurdy-gurdy and piano for just over half of the song. After that we've clearly had enough, comfort so a sax pushed very much to it's limits breaks up the song for a while... A video for this song can be seen below.

The closing track of the record is Threads, again with a more traditional start of the song. The relaxed guitar line here could have easily featured on one of the first records, but the creepy violin in the back and the intertwined abrasive beats under the choruses make it clear that this is new Portishead. These choruses climb in intensity along the track, culminating in the vocals driving off into madness and loud large noises blaring for a while until the trip is finally done...

This record can be actually hard to listen to because of the traditional musical boundaries that are occasionally overstepped. Some vocal lines are not just dissonant but out of tune, structuring is often weird, the choice of instruments and the effects applied are not very common and can be offsetting and tracks sometimes just suddenly stop instead of having a proper outro. But this is clearly intentional, this was not meant to be record that is shaved until perfection. That would not fit the very dark themes handled; when you're at the depth of your despair, why would you care about a technically perfect and soothing performance? No, this is a record that directly channels the emotions it wants to evoke into sound. Polishing it further would only mean the message hides behind an unneeded and uncalled for layer.

To sum it all up: Portishead's Third, is easily one of the greatest comebacks ever, it offers a very different palette compared their previous work and it's just very good. No, actually, this is one of the greatest records ever, period. It shows an emotional depth and level of despair rarely reached in even the most extreme genres. It is intelligently constructed (read about it here), highly original and relevant.

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