Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Early thoughts on Portishead - Third

I'm due to review this for The Skinny, so a more coherent review will appear on this site in a couple of weeks... but for now (after three listens) this is what I'm thinking...

Portishead's Third is the best album of the year so far. It may also be Portishead's greatest album, though it's too early to say that now of course (it isn't even out yet, slow down the internet!). Portishead (the album) proved that Portishead (the band) do scary better than they do groovy or funky, making Dummy seem tame and tasteful in comparison - in several places, Portishead still makes my jaw drop, namely on "Cowboys", "All Mine", "Half Day Closing", the intro to "Over", and "Elysium". The best (read: heaviest) they ever get on Dummy is "Roads", which is truly unsettling. Dummy is more rooted in old soul and jazz (just as Massive Attack's debut Blue Lines is more rooted in old soul and reggae than their later stuff), which explains why it's less scary, because soul never had the objective to frighten. Third is far more frightening than Portishead, and I think it might actually be the most frightening album I've ever heard (beating Nico's The End by a hair).

A few individual track comments...

"Silence" is very Can-like ("Canny"?), the way it revolves into a groove, before cutting out suddenly like Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" does in the middle of a groove. The beat is more energetic than any beat Portishead has ever used before.
"Plastic" includes a fantastic helicopter effect, which fades and returns like a helicopter which flies away and then returns, like a looming threat.
"We Carry On" turns the threat into an apocalyptic vision of robots, marching to war.
"Deep Water" is perhaps a little incongruous, being a lo-fi folk (anti-folk?) number like the Moldy Peaches (or the Velvet Underground with Mo Tucker singing), but even here there's something brilliant to note - check out the muffled doo-wop backing vocals.
"Machine Gun" is fucking heavy, really. Quite obviously it sounds like a machine gun battle between rival factions, which continues the threatening imagery (and the idea of marching into war). The machine gun beats frequently change timbre, which sounds like gunfire from different platoons. Towards the end there's a genius bit when early 80s synths come in (synths like Moroder's on Scarface, or Vangelis' on Bladerunner), and it sounds fucking epic.
"Small" is scary too, mostly thanks to the screaming ghoul effects which remind me of Brian Eno's moaning synthesizers on Nico's "You Forgot to Answer". That's a really harrowing song, and this comes close to replicating the effect.
"Threads" has a straining violin line that keeps things uneasy through an otherwise regular PH song...but the unease builds as distant foghorns rise in the mix, until the end when Beth Gibbons starts wailing melismas and the foghorns boom over her, suffocating the life out of her and the song. The album ends with these huge booming balls of doom, foghorning you into submission.

I felt this ending so powerfully on my second listen that I had to put my left hand in my mouth to stop myself squealing, and banged my head down on my desk to recover my thoughts. It really shook me up in a way I haven't felt about a new album for a long, long time. Luckily, I've calmed down a bit since then!

Other than "Hunter", which I feel is the weakest track on the album, my only other criticism so far is that a good few tracks take long intros to get into good grooves and then... fade out, or stop, not just "Silence" but also "The Rip", "Machine Gun" and "Small". You might say this is good because it's unpredictable, and it prevents self-indulgent groove pumping (hello Songs in the Key of Life)... well, mibbe, but it just makes me long for 12" extended remixes, already.

There are arguably some parallels between the Portishead career path and that of Massive Attack - first albums more obviously soulful, second albums critical disappointments, third albums are returns to form with frightening bass and gloom a long distance from their first LPs... alternatively, if you prefer Portishead to Dummy as I do, you could point to the promising debut album with one obvious hit, the second album being a consistent and near-perfect exposition of the style, and the third an ambitious vision of fear and the technological future... and compare the trajectories of PHead and RHead...

But, let's not. It's surely possible to manufacture parallels between career trajectories to match any two acts picked at random. So I'll finish for now by saying well done! to Portishead for returning after 11 years and delivering an album that's not in the least bit dated and not in the least bit disappointing. It's a hell of a trick and I can't wait to a) buy this album on vinyl and listen to it through my great big speakers, and b) see them live at Coachella!

PS. I want to add my congratulations to my buddy Sean Michaels whose blog Said The Gramophone - which is linked there on the left - just won the 2008 'bloggie' award for Best Music Blog (beating off competition from Idolator, among others). I remember a few years ago, before I really looked at music blogs, when Sean used to tell me he ran a blog that was "quite popular", and I didn't pay much attention. Now I know he was being understated as usual, and that his blog is actually one of the best and most widely-read in the world - and this confirms it! I find links to Said The Gramophone on the blogs of almost every good music writer I find! Congratulations Sean, I'm just another who has discovered many gorgeous songs through your lucid and poetic write-ups, and your award is fully deserved!

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