Music Reviews

posted: February 14, 2009

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Portishead – Third Third

Mercury
Portishead – Third

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 14 years since I first heard the song “Sour Times” on my car radio and wondered who was responsible for such a distinctive, evocative sound, the type of music that might grace the beginning of a James Bond film if David Lynch had taken over the franchise.  Indeed, it’s been 11 years since Portishead has released an album, and while that same feeling of espionage still soaks through every minute of Third, the result is a bit more weary, tortured and agitated.  In other words, it’s unlike anything else out there.

That seems like a contradictory statement, since the Portishead sound seems more relevant and timely in 2008, where genres such as hyperdub have gained traction in the modern music scene.  Musically, Third doesn’t really venture that far from most of the work being done in UK clubs these days, save for a surprisingly gentle ballad (such as “The Rip”) or two.  What truly sets Portishead apart from its contemporaries, however, is Beth Gibbons beautiful yet mercilessly haunted vocals.  When she sings “I don’t know what I did to deserve you” on “Nylon Smile,” you’re left wondering what kind of weapon she’s hiding behind her back.

While Portishead could never quite be mistaken for Katrina and the Waves, Third is by far the
darkest of their albums, and you’re left wondering whether Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley and multi-instrumentalist/producer Geoff Barrows are genuinely okay.  Whether this album’s pessimistic atmosphere is indicative of even “sourer” times (“We Carry On” and “Machine Gun,” for example, sounds like they belong on the next Scott Walker LP), or if there’s some silver lining to be found somewhere (such as in the ukulele-driven “Deep Water”), Portishead continues to be a vital if dour presence in modern electronica.

–Marc Phillips