To be honest, I’d got heartily sick of reading about this. It’s not going to stop me chipping in with my two penn’orth, though! If you’ve just returned from a lengthy trip to outer space you may not be aware that Portishead are back with their first album in eleven years. It’s been lauded to the skies from the Guardian to Gardener’s World (probably) – the only seeming naysayer being some tin-eared buffoon on the Wire.
We’ve had these cases of collective hysteria before, only for everyone to sober up a few years later and realise that maybe the object of their plaudits was over-praised a tad (or a lot). On this occasion, though, I think the consensus is right. Third is magnificent.
Portishead had to change. They couldn’t have churned out a carbon copy of the first two albums after all this time away. At the same time, radical reinvention for the sake of it could easily come across as both forced and false. Third manages to negotiate these obstacles. The claustrophobia remains, as does Beth Gibbons’ unique, harrowing torch singing. She actually surpasses herself on this record. I found that she could be a bit mannered on the previous album, sometimes hamming up the notes-per-syllable count more than was strictly necessary. On Third she is faultless.
Where this album trumps its predecessors is the sheer variety of the sonic pallette. Names dropped comparatively in previous reviews and articles have included Silver Apples, Kraftwerk, Sunn O))), Merzbow, Radiohead. And I hear the references. Some are a little more obvious than others (take the throbbing oscillator pulse on “We Carry On”, for example – very Silver Apples, but the guitars are detuned and sound like Sonic Youth), and yet everything is mashed up and remoulded into something totally new.
And then sandwiched between two of the darkest epics on the album, we get 93 seconds of “Deep Water” – a ukelele ballad with a vocal backing that sounds like a suicidal barbershop quartet. But it’s anything but whimsical. Like everything else on Third, it fits. You couldn’t imagine the album working as well without it. That’s a common thread throughout the record. There are surprises, twists and turns aplenty, but nothing feels out of place. You could almost believe it took eleven years to perfect. Well, maybe not eleven.
So, add me to the acolytes. Portishead, along with Radiohead and Massive Attack, are a unique trio of bands who are consistently adventurous, and yet at the same time can command record sales on a similar scale to the beige mainstream. That’s quite a feat
1 Silence 5:00
2 Hunter 3:58
3 Nylon Smile 3:19
4 The Rip 4:30
5 Plastic 3:30
6 We Carry On 6:27
7 Deep Water 1:33
8 Machine Gun 4:46
9 Small 6:47
10 Magic Doors 3:31
11 Threads 5:47