Almost ten years since releasing the live album PNYC, Portishead has appeared out of near obscurity with the highly anticipated Third in hand. The now somewhat dated trip-hop genre--which the band helped to pioneer and popularize--has evolved, making frontwoman Beth Gibbons’ influence here (and her interim work with Paul Webb on Out of Season) particularly resonant. No doubt most consider Portishead Gibbons’ to be band anyhow, as her distinct and ethereal vocals are rarely heard beyond the perimeters of the Portishead sound.
We know well enough to expect something good--Dummy (1994) and Portishead (1997) are defining releases of the 1990s--but ten years is a long time in between records, enough time to negotiate a new sound all together. Encountering Third, we find all this to be true. The stark and distant tone we’ve come to expect is at home here, a combination of electronic blasts and industrial reverb icily detached at times from Gibbons’ pleading vocals. The album is boldly experimental, but the combination of new textures and timbres never completely usurps the band’s pop sensibility, which retains enough of their trademark lushness that it acutely straddles the line between harmony and friction.
In this way, Third could achieve the kind of mainstream recognition that albums like '70s avant-garde group Can’s Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi have attempted in the past. Opener “Silence” brings to mind the repetitive tribal beats of that band’s signature sound we’re just now beginning to grasp. Tribal rhythms are layered here with lush strings and Gibbons’ melancholia, never taking for granted the listener’s tolerance for the unfamiliar. Third makes no effort to blast away into new, uncharted territory; it instead reveals itself slowly and calculatingly, a credit to the mature talents of mixing frontman Geoff Barrow and engineer/drummer Adrian Utley.
Diverse instrumentation has found a place here, too. “Deep Water,” a short ukulele interlude, resides between the industrially driven “We Carry On,” with Gibbons’ wailing a discordant guitar like Kim Gordon, and single “Machine Gun,” with Kate Bush-era synth noise and cold, electronic beats. Thematic contrasts are accentuated further with the free-jazz sax and deeply disconnected lyrics of “Magic Doors”: “I can’t deny what I’ve become/ I’m just emotionally undone/ I can’t deny I can be someone else ... I don’t know who I’m meant to be/ I guess it’s just the person that I am.”
Behind these minor tones and detached themes, Third emits a knowing and quiet confidence that communicates the band’s strongly held ideas, especially that of existential ennui. Utley says, in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, that Gibbons is “showing her frustration with modern society.” But the relationship between Portishead, their material, and their fans could never be closer; Third borrows heavily from the history and myth of the band--between modified themes and familiar, dark atmospherics--to make all the new pieces fit. It's a scrupulous accomplishment and a demonstration of the band’s vision, longevity, and focus, finding the members once again wading the headwaters of new genre.
In Mark Stewart’s preview of Portishead’s long-awaited third LP, the musician makes much of a critically lauded group’s desire to break from expectations. In truth, in the ten years since the last Portishead album, much of the group’s music has changed simply due to context -- take the Victoria’s Secret commercial, for example. That said, anticipation runs understandably high, especially in light of the dramatic turns taken at the group’s recent reemergence at All Tomorrow’s Parties. Third isn’t just crate diggin’, mopey muzack: it’s shaping up to be a bitch with gnarled teeth. Finally, something to chew on.