Portishead “Third” Review

Portishead/ Third, 9.4/10

It has been a long, long time since Portishead recorded any new material. For eleven years, this has been a real shame, but when their aptly titled third album is released in about three weeks, the resounding sentiment will be that it was well worth the wait. On Third, the band’s first album since their self-titled sophomore album was released in 1997, Portishead demonstrates the maturity that they have gained during their hiatus. Gone are the catchy trip-hop dub beats and the botiquey instrument riffs that made Dummy (1994, 9.6/10) and Portishead (1997, 9.3/10) instant classics and made the Bristol trio musical pioneers in their own right. Instead, the band delivers an intensely emotional and uniquely sad album that benefits from its use of new techniques, including a lot of synthesized drumming and organ sampling, turn table spinning and even some carefully placed electric guitar. Portishead also builds into many of its slower songs, creating a crescendo effect that adds intensity to Beth Gibbons’ haunting vocals, which haven’t lost a single step over the last decade and change. On the whole, Third is crushing, and is not recommended for times of severe emotional instability, which of course is to say that it is an amazing accomplishment.

The album starts on a solid note, as the up-tempo “Silence” sounds completely different than anything the band has ever done. The song begins with a rolling drumline and before long some almost frightening, discordant string arrangements join along. The tempo almost reminds me of Hooverphonic’s better work, but the musical sounds are so much more foreboding and serve as a great preface for the incredibly dark, personal subject matter that the album contains. Suddenly, the music stops and Gibbons’ voice enters, pleading hopelessly “Did you know what I lost?/ Did you know what I wanted?/ Empty in our hearts/ Crying out in solice” before the full tempo picks up again and carries us to the end of the song, which stops abruptly, but not without gaining our full attention.

The mesmerizing “Hunter” slows down the tempo a great deal, and is so much more serious of a song than anything that they have even done, darkly hypnotic with its slow slow acoustic guitar and soft percussion. Third benefits most from its experimentation on songs like “Plastic”, which starts and stops a lot behind synthesized organs and underlying percussion reminiscent of “Mysterons”, as well as Gibbons pushing her vocals to their own limits. “Deep Water”, a beautifully short track with twangy acoustic guitar, doesn’t sound anything like Portishead but fits in perfectly here, adding some major keys to the overwhelming darkness but not providing any happiness to the subject matter. But the general air of hopefulness makes itself known early on with “Nylon Smile”, which rolls along under a steady ringing-bell synthesizer as Gibbons admits, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you/ And I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”

The real standout track among such amazing music is centerpiece “We Carry On”, another uptempo number which hits like us a brick to the face with its steady, pounding percussion and a catchy synthesized riff. The combination of musical elements here, which even includes a heavy electric guitar riff towards the end, couldn’t have been more perfectly executed. I have a feeling that I’m going to have a lot of trouble finding a song that I like better than this one all year. The band steps outside of the box yet again on the perfectly titled “Machine Gun”, which shoots short, syncopated blasts of sound beneath Gibbons’ flawless vocal work. Penultimate track “Magic Doors” succeeds in not taking itself too seriously and carrying the album along into its conclusion with its switch from an uncertain, dark melodic structure to a bittersweet chorus. The song doesn’t stand out as some of these do, but serves as the album’s final connecting link. The dark, painful “Threads” sends the album off on a perfect note as Gibbons confesses, “I’m old/ Tired of my mind/ I’m old and/ Thinking of why/ I’m always so unsure.” This may be the album’s most powerful emotional track as it rolls softly above synthesized guitars that join intense percussion for the chorus. Gibbons essentially loses her mind during the coda, wailing unintelligibly as the vocals fade out and we are left with one last haunting horn riff that repeats, and repeats, and repeats into the darkness. Wow.

Despite all of this brilliance I have described, perhaps my favorite thing about Third is how well some of the songs build into a crescendo. The best example of this comes early on “The Rip”, which starts simply with Gibbons’ vocal “White horses/ They will take me away/ And the tenderness I feel/ Will set the darkness underneath” above seemingly simple acoustic guitar picking. Gibbons’ final note is held (probably by a computer, but we’ll forigive her here) as the same guitar line evolves into synthesized organ and percussion joins along, carrying the track into its subdued coda, brilliant in its seeming simplicity. “Small” takes a bit longer to build, but uses the same technique, as Gibbons sings softly over a very melancholy guitars and horns before snare drum beats and perhaps the scariest organ sounds on the whole album combine perfectly.

With Third, Portishead has in my opinion established themselves as one of the most accomplished and important bands in the history of music. The album surpassed all of my expectations. As usual, there isn’t a single weak track here, but this may also be the best flowing album that they’ve ever created. It’s certainly more of a concept album than anything they’ve recorded previously, and while the songs aren’t as easy to listen to as “Numb” and “Glory Box”, they certainly prove that Portishead hasn’t just been sitting around for the past eleven years forgetting about how to make music that means something. It is difficult to envision a better album being released in 2008.

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