Without dwelling too much on the past, the similarities between 1994 and 2008 as far as music and popular culture are concerned stare spookily back at one another like some delayed mirror image. Both seemingly caught between lulls in discernible home-grown talent, dance and club culture on a pill-induced decline while tabloid shock stories and no-mark celebrities clog up the airwaves saying very little of importance to anyone in particular. Oh, and of course, both mark the first and latest arrivals of product from Portishead, a trio whose dictionary probably doesn't contain the word "prolific" but whose output has been none the less remarkable all the same.
It's quite bizarre now to even consider the fact that their debut long player 'Dummy' soundtracked umpteen dinner parties, sales conferences and christenings. It's probably even more likely that its creators disgust for their art to be used in such a vacuous fashion bore fruits on 1997's "difficult" second album, 'Portishead', and was ultimately responsible for the 11-year wait and even more harrowing, industrial-sounding record that is 'Third'.
Indeed, if ever there was a band that really didn't wish to bask in the commercial success they managed to attain it was Portishead, so much so that they seem to have made uneasy listening into an art form, even if the development of such an objective could hardly be described as an overnight occurrence.
That's not to say all three members of the band have spent the last decade with their feet up on the south-west coast either. Chanteuse Beth Gibbons put out the engrossing 'Out Of Season' back in 2002, albeit in a fairly low-key fashion, while the technical wizardry of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Uttley has been responsible for various production jobs ranging from Amusement Parks On Fire's debut album to The Coral's 'Invisible Invasion'. More importantly of course, all the time their other activities have paid the bills as it were, the trio have been steadily creating the masterpiece that is 'Third'.
I use the word "masterpiece" because in time, that is what 'Third' will come to be known as; the defining moment of Portishead's career. While there are no obvious radio-friendly singles such as 'Glory Box' or 'All Mine' here, 'Third' is an experiment in sound that is pulled off with some aplomb, dispelling any fears in the process that they were nothing more than one-trick ponies in the field of white man's hip-hop, or trip-hop, as it came to be known.
Opening with the broken Spanish spoken word intro of 'Silence' before breaking out into a melange of industrial noise, the only recognisable aspect of days gone by comes courtesy of Gibbons' nascent vocal, a tinge of sadness running through the line "Do you know what I lost?" until the song's abrupt ending.
And so it continues for the duration of 'Third''s eleven tracks. 'Hunter' is all thundering drums which give way to 'Nylon Smile', an almost heartfelt plea by Beth Gibbons ("I don't know what I've done to deserve you/I don't know what I'd do without you") that actually sounds like a nervous breakdown in progress right before your very ears. 'Plastic' and the closing 'Threads' are possibly the only times that 'Third' delves into Portishead's archives, as mellow, drawn-out beats linger as a backdrop for Gibbons poignant vocal delivery in each.
The highlights of 'Third' come when Portishead not only leave their (previous) comfort zone, but simply bolt down the showers and board up the windows. Lead single 'Machine Gun' and its krautrock-inspired rhythms you'll no doubt already be aware of, while 'We Carry On' goes one step further, mixing Ministry-like dissonance with a 'Movement'-era New Order bassline that sounds like nothing else on earth, let alone Bristol. Similarly, 'Small' rings out a procession of glissando-type guitar effects over Gibbons' harrowing assertions ("You're just a man/Hoping to score just like me") that may give another indication as to why they've been out of the public eye for so long, while 'The Rip' mixes a semi-acoustic guitar riff with all kinds of sci-fi style effects that recall Add N To X at their most charmingly effervescent.
All in all, 'Third' is the album Portishead have wanted to make for nigh on a decade and a half. While it is most definitely their opus grand, there's also a sense of closure about the album as a whole, and if this were to be the last record Portishead were to ever make, they couldn't have wished to go out in a more spectacular fashion. Timeless.
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