Long vanished from the music scene, Portishead have finally reemerged with a new album. Hallelujah for that.
But this isn't quite the same Portishead as before -- the music here is more raw, minimalistic and dark, with a ragged murky edge that replaces some of the trippiness. While its flavour is quite different from Portishead's earlier work (and this album is best heard with as few comparisons as possible) the beautifully bittersweet "Third" is a haunting experience on its own.
First, a man recites the Wiccan rule of three... in Portuguese. Not sure what that has to do with anything, really.
It's followed up by "Silence," a darkly vibrant mass of violins, urgent drumming and dark ripples of synth. But then it slows suddenly, and Beth Gibbons sings in a soft, fragile voice, "Tempted in our minds/Tormented inside lie/Wounded and afraid/Inside my head..." She adds in a wispy, plaintive voice, "Did you know when you lost?/Did you know when I wanted/Did you know when I lost...?"
By this point, you should have a pretty good idea what you'll think of "Third." Whether you love it or you hate it, you'll know.
The dark, fragile sound of that first song carries over into the fairylike "Hunter" with its growling guitars, and the songs that follow -- tense elusive pop laments, organ ballads riddled with weird flapping and echoing synth noises, satiny rattly piano-synth melodies, and even a light little acoustic song that sounds mildly out of place, but makes a nice little lightweight oasis in all the dark stuff. The album rounds out with "Threads'" bleak web of windy synth, crashing drums and eerie guitar.
The song that really doesn't fit in here is ironically the first single, the rather repetitive, jarring drum-a-thon that is "Machine Gun." Sorry, but even Beth's haunting vocals cannot make this spiky song work.
I'm not surprised that people thought that Portishead had broken up -- after all, it's been eleven years since their self-titled album came out. And in that time, many a musical trend has come and gone (including electronic ones) and most trip-hop bands have settled into other sounds -- usually acoustic or dancepop. Well, Portishead doesn't do anything so predictable -- in fact, the result is utterly UNpredictable.
That trademark noir sound is gone. Completely gone. Instead we have a bleak, post-apocalyptic-dream sound, full of darker, tattered instrumentation, strange sounds and dark stretches of blipping/sweeping synth running just underneath. And yet if you listen to it without the comparisons of their previous albums, it turns out to be very compelling.
There are some lighter moments, like the acoustic ballad "Deep Water," but these softer interludes are overshadowed: we've got generous servings of growling grimy guitars and softer cycling ones, drum machines, sweeps of delicate piano and strings, and solemn soaring organ. But sadly, no horns. Seriously, where are the horns?
Beth Gibbons' voice sounds incredibly pretty and fragile, like a piece of silk just about to tear. Pretty perfectly suited to songs tinged with sorrow ("Somehow turn me around/No matter how far I drift/Deep waters won't scare me tonight"), even in their more positive moments ("Wild, white horses/They will take me away/And the tenderness I feel/Will send the dark underneath").
Those expecting another "Dummy" are going to be deeply disappointed in "Third." But take it for itself, and its bleak, eerie beauty will start to show.