Trip hop is a genre, and by definition bands get labeled. Portishead are considered the inventors of the genre, so they should have stuck squarely in their roles, sticking to the label. But they took a break after their Roseland NYC Live CD in 1998, a break that lasted 10 years. They were gone but never really forgotten, and with their new release Third, Portishead return as the saviors of trip hop, bringing the warped sense of otherworldliness and unsettling suspense to a musical genre that has been fractured of late.
They are back, only now they have smashed all the boundaries built around them, and moved into strange and uncanny new worlds of music. Considering that their CD broke the top ten in its opening week, and the leaked version has been making the rounds on the internet for months, apparently the fans are okay with the band’s new direction. As well they should be.
The angular, disjointed beats and dissonance are jarring at first listen. There is so little to grab on to, few hooks, few discernable melodies, and few memorable beats. This is not easy listening. This is total listener participation. In some ways it’s perfect for the I-Pod generation. Third pulls you in and demands to be taken seriously. After a few listens your mind is made up. You will either think it’s masterful or thinks it’s crap.
Third is unlike anything the band has done before, but that’s the whole point. Portishead have deconstructed everything, going so far as not using any instruments previously employed by the band. This is new and uncharted territory. It’s not a comeback but a rebirth. Like David St. Hubbins christening Spinal Tap Mach 2, Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley, and Geoff Barrow have brought us the rejuvenated Portishead.
The opener “Silence” ends mid beat, setting the tone for what’s to follow. “Hunter” is all atmosphere, with Gibbons’ ethereal vocals sitting on top of a lilting 60’s jazzy melody line. A Spector-like wall of sound crashes through the start of “Plastic,” before dropping off into the classic trip hop beats and vocals and for a moment the old Portishead shines through.
“We Carry On” is a magnum opus. At 6:33 it’s the second longest song on the album (“Small" clocks in at 6:53). Gibbons sings the verses slightly behind the beat, pulling even more emotion from dark lyrics (The pace/The time/I can’t survive /It’s grinding down the view). “Carry” is followed by the Depression-era sounding, ukulele-driven “Deep Water.” It would have been a perfect fit for the O’ Brother soundtrack. The first single “Machine Gun” is about as anti-single as you can get. There are no instruments, apart from a looping, staccato drum pattern, punctuated by a simple keyboard part halfway through. No melody, nothing to hum along with, yet it works.
With two classic works of flawless experimentation under their belt, the band could have coasted along and still turned out a 10. Instead, they went to 11.