Portishead – [Album]

Thursday, 03 April 2008

For England, 2007 was a year of reunions. Last year saw promoters rake in the dough by bringing acts like the Spice Girls, Take That and Echo & The Bunnymen back to the stage. While nearly fully responsible for disseminating trip hop—the morning-after-pill music for the 90s rave-on generation—Portishead surprised everyone by resurfacing on festival bills for this year's Coachella and last year's ATP. Even more surprising was the talk of a new album since their last release was about ten years ago. While reunion tours tend to look like desperate attempts to beat a dead horse, get with the times and get jiggy with the kids, reunion albums typically appear to even more grim reception. Such is not the case for Portishead’s fourth release, keenly titled Third.

With a stunning discography including the award-winning Dummy, Third carries the heavy weight of expectation, as follow-up albums of all sorts do. The question is whether or not they will cater to their fan base by safely delivering new material that fondly reminds them of past releases or offer something completely unexpected. Third is undoubtedly Portishead, and it demonstrates the best features of the sound they developed and popularized within a pill-popping culture that desperately needed a detox. Eerie, nocturnal and sobering, Third is testament to Portishead’s mastery of the slow-burner. Among an elegant combination of soothingly gloomy and fragile sound mixes, Beth Gibbons plays the tortured soul with operatic proportions, with a delivery that is poignant and haunting.

Fans will find the bulk of Third familiar as it fosters the type of beautiful tragedy that seemingly suits the media-shy trio. Their signature brand of gorgeous melancholy is known to strike a chord with “mature” alternative audiences due to its brain-cabaret sound, one that drips with world-weariness and emotional baggage. It’s as demanding and visually rich as theater, and sounds less like music and more like raw stage drama. It’s emotionally draining but cathartic. Gibbons' mind-wandering whisper-delivery is unfiltered passion. Lyrics are off-tangent thoughts elegantly colliding with the cold samples of industrial-like instrumentation. While “Hunter” and “The Rip” resonate fogginess amid vocals wet with echo, it sounds distant but extremely claustrophobic. The murky colored instrumentation, full of exotic minor tunings and subtle, but tribal percussiveness, make all intentions seem cold but hot with feverish and frantic emotional states. Adrian Utley’s isolated melodies, usually only a few notes long, match Gibbons' ghostly obsessiveness in “We Carry On,” while Geoff Barrow’s ability to sew it all together with swamp-hued samples and beats make for one sublimely sad album that will shake your core.

With Third, Portishead manage to do both. Tunes resurface familiar territory but offer much musical variety and something completely unexpected in “Deep Water.” Only equipped with what sounds like a ukulele, vocals are warm with harmony as Gibbons sings of strength and hope. Portishead prove that their “mature” alternative sound really has no age at all because it’s simply timeless.

Third is out April 29, 2008, on Mercury/Island.

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