Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"From the Archives": Portishead - Third

So, the website I used to write for shut down and stopped paying their bills, meaning that hundreds of my old reviews are no longer accessible on the internet. In the meantime, I need a place to make a few old reviews available for a bit, so I thought I'd post them here.

This review was first published at www.30music.com in 2008.

Artist: Portishead
Title: Third
Label: Mercury Records
Format: CD
Year: 2008

In college, several of my friends dated women who forged an unnatural bond between sex and Portishead’s second, and most adored, album Dummy. A couple of these friends almost became conditioned to expect sex anytime the album started playing. A female friend conditioned herself to climax on her own at a specific moment, in a specific song through simple association. Needless to say, it was very difficult and uncomfortable anytime someone tried to play the album in the car or at a party. The strange phenomenon that linked Dummy with sex wasn’t particularly surprising. The album pulsated with sexuality, highlighted by its dark, trippy beats and Beth Gibbons sultry vocals. The combination of slippery, gritty compositions with Gibbons’ sexy voice not only came to signify sex, it became a sort of aural sex (zing!) on its own.

With each passing year after its release, Dummy became less mysterious, and more knowable—the spontaneity and sensuality were replaced with a sense of dull expectation. We knew every nook and cranny of the album. The thrill was gone. The album was, and is a classic, but that raw immediacy of discovery and surprise has long vanished. Now, a decade later, Portishead have returned, bringing with them a new album, the delicate and surprising Third.

To extend the sexual metaphor of this review a bit further, Third continues the Portishead experience in much the same way that a tryst between reunited lovers might work at redefining the nature of a decade long absence—there is a sense of the familiar, but the edges are softer, less sexy than comfortable. The biggest surprises are cosmetic—a new scar, a few extra pounds—and maybe everything is a little bit sadder and needier. That’s not to say that Third is tired, sad or needy—rather, it’s songs are more rooted in traditional rock and electronic music than the band’s earlier efforts, and the end result is still sexy, though the overall tone is darker and more somber than might have been expected.

Opening the album at breakneck speeds (by Portishead standards, anyway) “Silence,” sets the album's tone. The song focuses itself on texture and atmosphere, forgoing the trippy beats of Portishead’s past in favor of organic percussion and a smooth pulse that perfectly compliments Gibbons’ gorgeously sung, high-school journal lyrics (ie., “…wounded and afraid/inside my head…”). “Nylon Smile,” provides a hint of the familiar trippiness to the album, looping through elongated phrases and Gibbons’ plaintively delivered, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you.” One of the album’s more stunning and surprising moments is the minute-and-a-half folk tune, “Deep Water,” which finds Gibbons accompanied by a ukulele, and otherworld interjections from tape-looped back up singers.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Portishead still sound a good deal like sex. Now, however, Portishead’s sexy nature is more rooted in a carefully crafted, dark tone than in slick beats and sultry vocals. In a lot of ways, Third manages to perfectly balance the comeback chore of exploring new musical territory, while maintaining enough familiarity for the band to still ‘sound like’ Portishead. If nothing else, then, Portishead should be congratulated for being a positive exception to the rule of come backs. Let’s hope all the rumored reunions that we’ll hear about in the next decade are taking notes and that they can all be half as graceful as this one.

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