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CD Feature/ Portishead: "Third"

img  Tobias
It was a sunny day and I was drinking a cup of coffee with some friends outside a cafe on the market place of some small Swabian town, when I suddenly realised I wanted to buy the new Portishead CD. Without announcing or introducing itself, the notion was simply there, like the sudden twitch of an addiction waiting to be fed. I excused myself, entered a department store just a few metres away, drummed my fingers on the rubber handrail of the ascending escalators to the second floor and took my copy of the album from a pile of P’s, lovelessly stacked to the shelves as though this were the new Bon Jovi record. I returned to my coffee and for the next minute or two, I just looked at the indigo cover, with the Portishead logo and a transparent “3” overlapping like siamese twins in an uncomfortable embrace. It felt strange.

Admittedly, it feels even stranger telling you all this as the opening to a review. Still, even after re-reading it several times and recontextualising it in my head, it seems the only sensible way. There are few bands out there whose emergence and disappearance has been as intense and evocative as those of Portishead. I can still, for example, remember exactly a scene on the day their eponymous second album was released. I was standing in the half-lit basement of a student club in the Dutch town of Leiden and a curlyhaired friend was telling me she had just bought it and when I asked her how it sounded, she just said: “Very heavy.”

I remember this because it mattered immensely to me then and I can still see myself on my bed in the dark and the way I froze when Beth Gibbons sang “Yes I’m breaking at the scenes just like you” in the finale to closing track “Western Eyes”. Later, a friend of mine would confess he had been listening almost exclusively to the album for the best of an entire year. Somehow, the music of Portishead has always been playing on the turntables of some distant past, which we can no longer place but whose images are implanted on our mind’s eyes like haunting, nightmare-like visions.

On the way back home, in the car, I listened to “Third” twice in a row. The first thing I noticed was that Gibbon’s sounded relieved somehow, as though a weight has been lifted from her. To be sure, her perfornance was still mournful, her lyrics still filled with doubts and dilemmas, her posture crouched. But while she sometimes seemed to be disappearing behind the crackle and distortion of her processed phantom image on the first two Portishead discs, her fears and loathings now sounded frailer and closer than ever.

The second aspect of the album was that of a journey. From the cinematic opening “Silence” with its loudly pounding percussion and drily wirring guitars, the dream noir beauty and bizareness of “Hunter” as well as the naive analog bassline covering up the acoustic folk at the end of “The Rip” to the dilusionally marching trance of “We carry on” and the Piano magic of “Magic Doors”, it had the appearance of a concept album, whose concept was but a fairy-tale.

Closer inspection gathered on various headphone walks through the nights of different cities revealed a two-part organisation: A first half consisting of linearly composed and poignant pieces, culminating in the aforementioned frenzy of “We carry On” , separated from the second part by means of the Bluegrass pastiche “Deep Water”,. its barely one and a half minute long nakedness of Gibbon’s pure voice over a campfire guitar and Barbershop Quartet background vocals leading directly into the Industrial echoes of “Machine Gun”. Stylistically, the band have never been as open and eclectic as on this effort, but the logic of “Third” is severe and strict, allowing noone an easy escape and demanding a full-length listen from audiences eagerly approaching its fortress.

What else is there to write about an album, which has by now been dissected, reviewed and analysed beyond recognition in the media over the past weeks? Publications have already doted on the fact that the surreal organ finale of “Small” reminds one of the Doors, that “Third” might have been influenced more by the bleak outlook of No Wave than by HipHop and that it is still recognisably a Portishead album, while offering a clear development. Others were eager to point out that there are no big climaxes to be found on this account, that the album no longer sounds as ardent and driven by an inner need as previous publications and that it lacked a powerful subbass feel.

There is a sense of truth in all of these remarks. For the first time, one has the impression that more and more people are seeing the same thing in the group’s work, a rare feat of collective “understanding” especiallly when it would have been easy to simply do away with this “reunion” as unnecessary or outdated.

And yet, all of this does not get to the heart and the essence of the matter in my opinion. What really counts beyond a mere summary of the music or an academic definition of what constitutes the Portishead sound in the year 2008 is that “Third” comes across as a statement by a band that still wants to prove everything to the world. The tribal drums, the subtly plaintive chords, the seductive strings, the elastic groove, the childhood memories, the regrets, the almost naive ballads, the vocal bareness, the immediacy, the joy of trying out different things, the catchy chorusses and bewildering breaks, the way the cold delay of the rhythm track of “Machine Gun” fades into hauntingly suggestive fields in its wake strike one as both immensely free and ambitious.

To sum it up, the message of “Third” is that Portishead are still there and they still matter. It is.the triumph of a band who have never sounded this human before and whose future is now more promising than ever because of it. “Can’t wait to write some new tunes”, Geoff Barrows wrote on his blog just a couple of days ago and in the forum, the anticipation grew. It shows how much has changed. For the past eleven years, a statement like that would have called a fake right away.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Portishead
Homepage: island Records

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