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Portishead - Third

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Artist: Portishead

Album: Third

Label: Mercury/Island

Review date: Apr. 17, 2008

The penultimate scene in James Whale’s classic horror film Bride of Frankenstein features the awakening of the Monster’s mate, played by the severe yet striking Elsa Lancaster. The Bride, with her shock of white hair and erratic yet sensual body language, embodies the jarring juxtaposition of the lamplight world against the blinding verisimilitude of the electric age. At their best, Portishead provides a musical corollary; vocalist Beth Gibbons’ piercing tenor betrays the anguish of an analog soul torn apart and reconstituted in Geoff Barrow’s Frankenstein-like arrangement of ones and zeroes. The music, while beautiful, is often as herky-jerky as Lancaster’s reanimated woman – an awkward marriage of grace and grotesquery. This aesthetic is still present, albeit in muted form, on Portishead’s “comeback” record, Third. The album ditches the dramatic ballast of 1997’s Portishead, but a mood of expectant dread is present throughout. Wallowing in the band’s mottled music is as easy as ever, and in many ways, even more rewarding.

Given its long gestation period and the changes in the pop music and cultural landscapes since the band’s last studio effort, Third seems destined to disappoint. Music writers are often reluctant to revisit recent history, particularly genres thought dead and buried. Trip-hop – that loose alignment of dub, downtempo and “urban” styles once celebrated by scenesters and critics – carries zero water in today’s scene. And Portishead’s original fans are older now, and possibly less concerned with drugs, candles and chillout records than they are with paying the mortgage. Thankfully, Portishead aren’t playing to any audience but themselves, and in doing so, they both honor and transcend their musical past.

Third is a less cohesive album than anything the band has previously produced. But listen closely, and distinct themes begin to emerge. Expressions of worry, loss and spiritual uncertainty are present on nearly every track, with Gibbons’ lyrics set to somber and somewhat shapeless melodies. Gone are the banshee wails and heavy vibrato; instead she clings to the music like a wet wool cap to a weary traveler’s noggin. Musically the record is overcast and deliberate, with flashes of luminescence intersecting the gloom. The best way to describe Third in context with the band’s previous work is to say it’s much the same, yet very different.

Standout track “Small” affects a Spartan groove, with Gibbons singing in hushed tones alongside squiggles of Adrian Utley’s guitar and an ugly electric hum. “Machine Gun” is the only tune on the record to rock a synthetic beat, but it’s framed by Gibbons’ siren-like voice and overtaken by funereal keyboards in the tune’s final quarter. “We Carry On” jacks the martial pulse of The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth,” adding Bauhaus guitar and sundry sounds that are the musical equivalent of a lab full of Tesla coils.

The curtain has been thrown back, and we’re now allowed to see the body on the slab. Sunken valleys of sound have subsumed the breakbeats of yore. The music conforms to its own downcast dynamic, with charcoal chords and inky melodies making vague impressions before dissolving into the next musical motif. The sound is cadaverous and pre-galvanic, like Frankenstein’s stitched-together corpses before they’re flushed with electric juice. Third is about the potential for being, not being itself. It’s the base chemistry of the Portishead sound, a compound awaiting reaction. Which is up to the listener to produce, like the lightning that brings the Monster to life.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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