THE SPELL IS BROKEN, THE MOMENT PASSED
The return of Portishead has squibbed into something of a non-event. Their third album, Third, is released next week, but anybody who is anybody has gotten their hands on it already and offered their opinions on it. It’s by Portishead, so no doubt it will get 4-star-8/10-A reviews – but one wonders whether anybody will read them. Sometimes, leaking music onto the internet before it is formally released creates a ripple-effect of expectation; in this instance, the effect is more of a fizzle.
Third has polarised its fanbase. As a non-committal Portishead admirer, my opinion on Third lies somewhere between two poles. I don’t think I’ve ever been moved by Portishead – I was played “All mine” recently and asked to admire its bunny-boiling obsessiveness, but I couldn’t really hear it. Dummy is an easy-listening record in essence – the trademark crackle and Dietrich vibrato was there to add film noir gloss. I liked the effect, but I couldn’t take its contrived despair terribly seriously.
But Derek Walmsley’s review in the Wire really excited me:
Opening track “Silence” begins with a crackle of static, before a ragged, lean and urgent rhythm suggests This Heat or even the Last Poets, with guitars which grate and distort as if they’re trying to mimic this percussive attack.
This Heat! The Last Poets! They ain’t names you see quoted too much in reviews of pop albums, not even in the Wire. And Walmsley is right - the out-of-place, out-of-time snatch of Portuguese that opens "Silence" confuse and unsettle. A grey drone of drums, straight out of This Heat’s “Repeat”, enters the fray. Squeaks of guitar fall behind the beat, then overtake it, and a sombre bass plods underneath. But the problems with “Silence” – and the rest of Third – begin about 50 seconds in, when a single line of strings enter, adding an unwanted lushness to this bleak rumble. The entry of Gibbons’s “habitually introspective vocals” only compound the problem.
Portishead’s sound is defined by Gibbons’s voice, but I find it rather laboured. For all its quivering, bird-like angst, it hampers any connection to their work. It’s not the contrivance itself which is problematic as much as what it is trying to contrive: a soulfulness, a lived-in-ness, that simply isn’t there. Compare it with Martina Topley-Bird’s blank delivery on Maxinquaye, or the samples of unknown girl-singers on Burial. Those two records are viscerally complicated, despite the flatness of the vocals. They are, to quote Christgau, “the audioramas of someone who's signed on to work for the wages of sin and lived to cash the check.” With so much more industry, Beth Gibbons at her worst achieves only an ersatz blues.
It’s a shame, because some of the music on Third is really exciting, what Walmsley aptly calls a “primitive, dust-dry funk built of fragments, teeth and bone.” The spaces between the ammunition-beats of “Machine Gun” seem to be filled by the thrum of an accelerating heartbeat. “Hunter” is a spooky, Lynchian lullaby, with beautiful, de-stylised vocals from Gibbons, whose lilting spell is harshly interrupted by (first) a gigantic, cleaving chainsaw-guitar and (second) a skittish, subterranean arpeggio. And its finale, “Threads,” is perhaps the album’s true masterpiece: as a quietly screaming violin plays coldly over Gibbons’s hesistant monologue ("I'm worn, tired of my mind, I'm worn out thinking of why I'm so unsure"), she is slammed aside by a nightmarish, synth-guitar barf. This vile alarm closes the album with so much affect, you almost forget the lacklustreness of its middle section.
But nevertheless, I am with Mark Fisher when he recalls the dated forced-miserablism of This Life. I can't imagine the Nathan Barley bars of Hoxton spinning Burial or Tricky too often, but "The rip" and "Deep water" and "Magic doors" could get their more reflective punters in quite a spin.