I’ve always had a fixed, uncompromising image of Portishead in my mind. They always feature in black-and-white – like they’re too cool to be in colour and they’re always a bit melancholy and, well, earnest. They produce music that makes your brain hurt and happy, music that’s edgy and eerie, uplifting and solemn. And when their fans discuss them, it’s always with the hushed reverance that my mum uses when she talks about M&S ready-meals. So being in the presence of their third album a week before its release was quite an event. To mark it, I dusted down the shiny silver disc, shut out the sun, lay flat on the floor palms facing upwards and waited for greatness to enter my world…
In making Third, Portishead have said they had a plan: to sound like themselves but not like themselves. They still want their fans to connect, but want to open up to new fans too. Also, the intervening ten years has surely changed them musically. So have they managed it? Somehow, yes.
Let’s start with the simple facts though – this still sounds like a Portishead album. There really is no getting away from that fact, so don’t expect something mind-bendingly different. This album still has Beth mournfully wailing all over it, mixed up beats and white mist swirling around in the background. But whereas some of their trip-hop brethren have come back with albums that will happily spin on repeat while you’ve invited your parents round to eat prawn cocktail and chicken kiev, this one won’t – or at least, some of the tracks won’t.
This is an album that has aching beauty stamped through it, with Beth’s voice sounding like a wound that just keeps being reopened on every track. The album begins with some searing guitars and strings, and the first three tracks sound vintage Portishead, with Nylon Smile showcasing some tribal beats and the first of many haunting lyrics: ‘I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you and I don’t know what I’d do without you’ chirrups Beth, before contemplating hari-kari.
After that though, Portishead flex their muscles and stir in a dab of folk and pumped-up electronica on Plastic; and on We Carry On, they stray out of trip-hop mode, treading on the toes of vintage PJ Harvey in formula. At times it seems like they’re just throwing in sounds for the fun of it, making parts sound like a musical wrestling match: give it a few listens though and it opens up. Meanwhile, Deep Water sounds like it should be on a Cohen Brothers movie soundtrack, a Barbershop quartet with Beth taking lead vocals; while first single Machine Gun is uncompromisingly raw and edgy, but also anthemic and awesome live.
If you were already a fan of Portishead, then we’re sure you’ll buy this anyway. But if you’re not and you fancy a diversion into electronic blues, give this a go. Like all good groups, Portishead mix up styles and tempos, offering slow songs to watch the sun set to alongside more edgy output that crashes over you in sonic waves. Bleak, vulnerable and touchingly mysterious, it’s a must-listen album.
Reviewed in April 2008