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Review: Third (Portishead)

Portishead Third
Adrian Utley, Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow — Portishead

I took a swipe at the band Portishead in a [recent post], referring to their “suffocating sincerity”. Accurate, if harsh. Back in the early to mid-90s, the trio of Utley, Gibbons and Barrow became exemplars of the trip-hop genre — a uniquely Euro invention of borrowed influences ranging from American breakbeats and sampling to British spy film themes and that resulted in darkly lush songs that were strange and hypnotic. Their 1994 debut, Dummy, broke big and became a huge hit and was followed by the less-successful follow up, Portishead in 1997. And then… silence, for 10 years. Except for a live CD, the band didn’t produce anything until this Spring when Third was released to generally positive reviews.

For those fans who fell in love with the ingenious word and sound play of Dummy, Third could be a challenge. Dummy was like going to a dark carnival, alternatively scary and exhilarating. Gibbons’ plaintive ruminations on the futility of love at the end of the century were leavened by Utley and Barrow’s clever scratch-beats and exaggerated melodies. Third is not nearly as accessible as their previous work, and it is dark — almost angry. Loud discordances and abruptly cutoff song endings. Gibbons’ voice doesn’t display the dynamic range it once did and her singing of the (unrelievedly) dire lyrics is somewhat monotonous. Aural gimmicks pop up, as on the track “Machine Gun” — in which drum machine and synth are used to aggravating and too-obvious effect (given the title of the song…). The final track on the CD, “Threads”, is a relentless lament that ends with a minutes-long synthesizer drone that sounds just like the ominous bellow emitted by the Martians in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds right before they lay waste to all around them. Probably not intentional. All the tracks aren’t as disappointing — “The Rip” is a lovely song that starts with simple acoustic guitar accompanied by a signature Theramin, and slowly opens up into driving rhythm underneath a note held by Gibbons so long it begins to sound like a siren.

Portishead was emblematic of its time — romantic and scary and absolutely unique. But I guess that time has passed. The unique combination of talents that came together in their first two CDs is, alas, not evident here and I’m sorry to say that. I so much wanted to love this.

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