Portishead - Third (*****)
album review for the skinny
From the rolling krautrock groove of opener “Silence”, it’s clear Portishead haven’t been sitting on their hands in the 11 years since their last album. Critics of their self-titled second record alleged that it sounded too similar to the first, but that was just Portishead’s distinctive style. Third is a leap away from Portishead, as would be hoped for with an album so long in the making, but the truly shocking thing is that Third doesn’t disappoint after such a gestation. In the ensuing decade they’ve ditched the decks, which means the crackling jazz samples and lounge sensibilities are out. Instead they’ve focussed on their strength, as the second LP indicated they knew, which is creating creepy soundscapes for Beth Gibbons to dramatise over. The result is the most frightening record you’ll hear all year, infused with dread and danger at every turn: from the sense of siege created in “Plastic” by the to-and-fro of a chopping helicopter effect, to “We Carry On”’s robotic marching, to the ensuing epic battle depicted in “Machine Gun”. Closing track “Threads” builds unease from a straining violin line, until Gibbons’ vocals are overwhelmed by the impending threat; the climax, as booming foghorns announce doom’s arrival, will leave you breathless.
I went to see Portishead last night at the Corn Exchange (formal review thing to follow shortly), and the degree to which they have 'ditched the decks' and 'leaped away' became evident just by the function of Geoff Barrow within the group. When he wore his DJ headphones, it was always an 'old' song, and when he took them off in exchange for drumsticks it was always a new one. Beth Gibbons, forever hunching her shoulders in as if she wanted to disappear behind the mic stand, seemed genuinely thrilled with the response they were getting, and even though I love this album (and am starting to think Portishead might be one of my favourite bands period) I was also a bit taken-aback by the rapturous reception they were getting from 2000 (normally-reserved) Edinburgers. Some of the new songs were jaw-dropping live - I mean "Silence", "Machine Gun" and "Threads" in particular - though the suspicion still holds that Portishead often don't know how to finish a song. This is a minor criticism as - as I just said - I love them, but if they could learn the art of the outro it would mean songs like "Silence" and "The Rip" resolving in a more satisfactory way rather than just ending abruptly in the former case, or fading out at what seems like the start of a mid-section in the latter.
This is part of what makes Third a flawed album - "Hunter" is another part - but I'm absolutely resolute in my decision to give it 5-stars, as it has had a bigger effect on me than almost any album of the last few years... more so than any from 2007, certainly. This just reinforces the point that art should not be judged solely on whether flaws exist, but rather on the heights of response it can generate. I'll often hear or read people praising an album by saying something like "there's not a bad song on it", but this doesn't give any indication as to how good the not-bad songs are. You know, Claude Makelele never gives the ball away and rarely has a bad game, but every football fan in the world would rather watch a less-consistent flair player like Berbatov or Tevez, because it's not simple things done well that make us love football, it's the unexpected moments of glorious skill that give us that little squirt of dopamine and the reflexive smile. "Hunter" and other parts of Third leave me underwhelmed, but that's OK, because elsewhere my brain lights up in terror, like a wall screen alerting mission control to the bursting of a reservoir wall.