Wild Mercury Sound

Portishead: "Third"

John Mulvey

Before I start, a couple of caveats. First, I must admit that I haven’t played either of the first two Portishead albums for a shamefully long time, so I’m going to be struggling a little to put “Third” into context. Second, we’ve been listening to “Third” on a fairly capricious secure stream, which seems to skip a couple of tracks and be a little unpredictable; consequently, if I get titles wrong and can’t give a complete picture of the album, apologies in advance.

What I can hear, though, sounds really great. “Silence” is playing now, a rumbling, urgent opener, with some intricate rhythms and those trademark banshee, Bernard Herrman-ish strings. Beth Gibbons doesn’t turn up for two minutes, and the extended hiatus (that wonderful album with Rustin Man notwithstanding) doesn’t appear to have made her any less neurotic in approach.

My rough hearing suggests she’s singing, “Wounded and afraid inside my head, falling through changes”, though by “Nylon Smile” she appears to note I “struggle with myself, hoping that I might change a little”. While her bandmates have subtly adjusted their sound, Gibbons remains reassuringly anguished, and it’s a pleasure to hear a British female singer grapple with an idea of soul – whatever that is – which is so distinctly different from the stage school gymnastics of all those post-Winehouses currently packed onto the radio.

It’s funny, listening to Gibbons, to remember how Portishead were rapidly stereotyped as some kind of coffee table cliché, the dinner party CD of choice and so on. Again, I can’t remember exactly how discomforting those old albums were – I always suspect that the band were cursed by those who followed after them, so that when we try and recall how Portishead sounded, we sometimes summon up, I don’t know, Morcheeba by accident.

But there’s some pretty edgy things on “Third”, very much to my taste. The rattling, clangorous “We Carry On” is especially terrific. I remember seeing some mention of The Silver Apples in a review of their All Tomorrow’s Parties show, and that’s definitely apparent in the cranky early electronica here, in the rapid martial drums. Great scything riff that cuts through all the static and friction, too. It rocks, unapologetically.

“The Rip” is possibly even better, beginning as a folkish trinket that carries the same bucolic doom as Gibbons’ “Out Of Season”, but has a gentle pattering motorik beat that reminds me of both Neu! and even recent Radiohead – perhaps because it’s eventually coupled with some gorgeous electronic textures redolent of Boards Of Canada. I think this is my favourite right now.

As I write, “Plastichead” is playing, and I suspect this is closest to those two old records. After eight or nine listens, though, I’m starting to spot the intensity of the detailing: what initially appears quite sparse and bleak, now starts to betray the epic time that the trio have evidently spent obsessing over every last detail.

“Magic Doors” is similar, but it’s interesting again how the old vinyl crackle, the overt samples, have been replaced with a frictional, complex net of aged keyboards, and how the breaks are so eccentric. “Magic Doors”, incidentally, has a wonderfully inhospitable free jazz trumpet solo, I think, but it’s so treated and strange, it’s hard to work out exactly what it is.

“Deep Water”, meanwhile, is a tiny ukulele sketch, with Gibbons and some ghostly, eccentric backing vocals that make it seem at once whimsical and threatening. And “Just Like Me” reminds me, for some reason, of PJ Harvey, maybe circa “Is This Desire?”

I always liked Portishead, but in the initial trip-hop wars, I was always keener on Tricky. By some weird coincidence, Tricky is also making a comeback this spring, though one that’s much less anticipated after his past decade or so of such uneven and disappointing material. One of the great things about “Third” is that it doesn’t sound like Portishead have been wasting their time away. There are no huge rethinks of how music can sound, but there is a sense of how a captivating formula can be refined and discreetly expanded, and how every detail, every grind and hiss, can be shaped so exquisitely. It’s a fascinating record; let me dig out those first two records and see if I can make some more useful connections.


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