All Killer No Filler: Portishead – Third (2008)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 14, 2008
It’s been so long that I can’t be sure
It seems almost perverse to me that Portishead are just covering their third album Third. I’ve been waiting for the new P-Head album since I started listening to them in 2002, and that was a full half-decade after they released their second, and until recently, final LP. With every passing year of false rumors of productivity, the third Portishead album seemed more and more unlikely to ever materialize, becoming a sort of Chinese Democracy for fans of black-lit, down-tempo drama. And now after 11 years, it’s finally here, and it’s just called Third. Hey, as long as that’s what it actually is, we’re in no position to complain.
OK, so maybe not everyone was as into Portishead as I was in High School, so let’s sum up the band’s somewhat brief history for the uninitiated. Portishead materialized in Bristol, UK (also home to peers Massive Attack) in the early 90s, a group succinctly summed up by Rolling Stone as a love triangle between a man (Producer Geoff Barrow), a woman (eternally tormented vocalist Beth Gibbons) and a sampler (old blues and soul songs, John Barry and Bernard Herrman type movie scores and hip-hop). They released their debut album Dummy in 1994, which quickly became one of the key pop albums of the decade, a soundtrack for coffeehouses and boutiques nationwide, and one that made the future success of moody, slow-rolling artists like Everything But the Girl, Sneaker Pimps and Morcheeba possible. It even spawned a surprise MTV hit with “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me).” They released their second, self-titled, album three years later, to less acclaim and less commercial success, but to an eventual cult rep with fans who dug its spookier vibe and darker material. And then for 11 years, nothing.
But the weird thing is, the wait might have actually ended up working in the Bristol stompers’ favor. Not only had fans convinced themselves that it might never be coming, it had been long enough that they convinced themselves that even if it did ever come to fruition, it’d probably be largely irrelevant. And that has to do with a very dirty word that you’ll notice I’ve cleverly managed to avoid saying until now. You know the one, but just in case you don’t, I’ll put it by itself in italics in the next line to properly emphasize it.
It’s hard to think of a genre that put up less of an effort to survive the turn of the millenium than this one. It’s up there with Big Beat as being the definitive electronic genre in US popular 90s music, and by definitive I mean “couldn’t possibly have happened any other time”. The mere mention of the word brings up images of Gap commercials, Urb Magazine and MTV’s AMP, and you can pretty well guarantee that no PR guy in their right mind would include the word in a band’s press release in this day and age. And indeed, Dummy doesn’t exactly sound like it could’ve been recorded yesterday, though one listen to the other most commonly cited definitive trip-hop album (Massive Attack’s Blue Lines) will put even that in perspective. But needless to say, after a second album that was different in tone but not that different altogether, I doubt anyone was much expecting Beth, Geoff and Adrian to reinvent the wheel on this one.
Much to my surprise, though, Third doesn’t sound anything like a comeback album, and it definitely doesn’t sound anything like a Trip-Hop album. Most of the instrumentation sounds live, samples are sparse and far less obviously sourced, and the Barrow scratching that so brilliantly punctuated songs like “Cowboys,” “Roads” and “Only You” has vanished altogether. What we have instead is a jazz-kraut-surf-pop album that sounds like it was recorded by manic depressives inside a haunted house. It’s raw, it’s beautiful, and it’s utterly terrifying.
It’s hard to explain just how nutty this album sounded to me the first time I listened to it–the short-out that ends “Silence,” the backwards-sucking drum fills that make up the main beat to “Plastic” (which somehow constitutes the closest thing to TH on the album), the ukelele-ballad interlude of “Deep Water,” those terrifying fake ending (horn? string? synth?) blasts to close “Threads” and the album…nothing about this made sense to me. What’s more, Gibbons’ crooning no longer weaved into the songs like a tango, it just sort of hovered over them, providing no comfort whatsoever. It sounded like a band losing their minds.
And that’s what makes it so ingenious, I think. This was definitely the direction Portishead had been going in with their second album, which started to eschew the lush romanticism of Dummy‘s more traditionally lovelorn balladry for a far more restless sort of soulfulnes, the aural equivalent of the switch between spending the night boozing in a lonely lounge bar and stepping out alone into the dark, empty alley. They were bound to get to this point of no return eventually, but it’s surprising to see them make such a jump in one album–it’s like the album that should be their sixth or so, just without a third, fourth of fifth to show the stages of transition.
So stunning is it that this album isn’t just not totally pointless, but actually kind of awesome, that I’ve heard some people talk about this album being their best one yet. And I’m not even entirely positive that they’re wrong. The year’s young, but even if we get an album better than this one, I seriously doubt we’ll get one as pleasantly surprising.
(Also–does any band have a cooler logo than that one?)