Review Summary: A charm.
Oh, to be a member of a mainstream hard rock band. If you found yourself in the ranks of an AC/DC, an Aerosmith, a Nickelback, then life would be easy - churn out the same two songs over and over again and have done with it. Your fans would expect nothing less, so the money would keep rolling in, and best of all, you'd never actually have to think about your music. After all, nobody else does. For the rest of us toiling away making just about any other kind of music, life's slightly harder.
The interesting thing about Third
, of course, is that Portishead are one of the few bands who actually COULD get away with releasing the same album again. Were Third
to be Dummy II - Dummy Harder
, would anybody mind? After all, that album came out in 1994, and it's been 11 years since any new material of any kind emerged from the minds of Messrs. Barrow, Utley, and Gibbon. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and we're not just talking about the absence of Portishead - the cynics among us might argue that it's also been 10 years since anybody
released a good trip-hop album.
But then, if Portishead were the kind of band who considered doing that, then we wouldn't have had to endure a fourteen (!) year gap between Dummy
. We probably wouldn't even have had to endure the three years between Dummy
. So let's make this very clear - Third
is a very different beast from anything Portishead have offered up in the past.
For a start, Geoff Barrow has obviously been digging through his record crates, and he's also decided that he's interested in those Silver Apples fellows. He likes the cut of their jib, so to speak, and any conversation about the influences on this album could probably stop there. "We Carry On" is practically a sequel to "Oscillations". That means the fundamental basis for the Portishead sound has changed - by taking most of their cues from an electronic band who released their debut album in 1967, they've bypassed the importance of hip-hop entirely. How can we still call this trip-hop? How does the ukelele of "Deep Water", the creeping, awkward "Silence", the violent percussion of "Machine Gun", and the ruminative acoustic guitar of "Small" be made to fit into that particular genre, or even any one genre at all?
The other major change to the Portishead sound on Third
is the increased presence of guitars. "Small" is a doomy folk number without a single drum in sight for nearly 6 minutes, "Hunter" is built upon a plaintive strum with the chorus announced by intrusive distortion, and "The Rip" is perhaps a stab at incorporating Nick Drake's influence. Shades of Beth Gibbons' collaborations with Talk Talk's Rustin Man haunt around half of this album's tracks.
Despite the changes, though, the thing that drew many to the band in the first place remains intact. Beth Gibbons still has a voice that could melt steel. On "Nylon Smile", when she half-croons, half-murmurs 'I don't know what I've done to deserve you/And I don't know what I'd do without you', it's an astonishingly beautiful moment to rank alongside 'Nobody loves me, it's true/Not like you do' ("Sour Times"). It's Gibbons' haunting, bruised voice that never lets you forget that you're listening to a Portishead album, despite the fact that the band no longer sound like they're writing French film noir soundtracks (well, okay, they kinda do).
At heart, Third
is an album full of contradictions. It's obviously indebted to the '60s, but it still sounds futuristic; it could easily be the work of an entirely different band, yet it still sounds like Portishead; it's home to both their heaviest and most fragile songs yet. The biggest and best contradiction, though, is that by experimenting Portishead are actually playing it safe. Everybody knows how easy it would have been to offer up the album everybody was expecting, so were this to be a failure, the band would at least be commended for trying something different. It's a good job, then, that the songs are so brilliant. "Silence", "Hunter", "Nylon Smile", "The Rip", "We Carry On", "Machine Gun", and "Magic Doors" are all more than worthy of sitting next to "Glory Box" and "Sour Times" in a back catalogue that suddenly looks very, very strong.