Monday, November 17, 2008

Sourer times

Score: 6

The release came at the worst possible time seasonally: spring. Flowers blossoming, sun shining, dewdrops sparkling --- and Third, a bitter cry coughed up in a wasteland.

And yet the album doesn't make a good hibernating companion, either, even with winter threatening an early visit.

Displaying its birth order in its name, Third represents Portishead's return after a decade of inactivity. That time span also saw little in the way of side projects, Beth Gibbons' 2002 collaboration with Rustin Man, Out of Season, being the lone pursuit to bear LP fruit (not counting albums on which Geoff Barrow or Adrian Utley served as producer, and there weren't even many of those).

Perhaps more crucially, Portishead became legends in that time, recognized as trip-hop architects, canonized by critics, and later revered by Gnarls Barkley and others, who cited the band as an influence. Though they hadn't broken up, the hiatus began to cement itself as it stretched year after year, making it easier to view Portishead's work with the same finality accorded to bands long gone, rather than as a current, unfolding creative endeavor.

So it's understandable that Portishead might elect to make significant changes before delivering their first album of the new millennium. It's just disappointing that their new direction plays against their strengths.

The haunting beauty of Portishead, and of Dummy especially, has been jettisoned, and any remnants of it remember only the haunting part. Gibbons' voice, which moved with liquidity around those chilled-out beatscapes, now contends with a punishing, militaristic presence that shrivels it.

First single "Machine Gun" unleashes a pummeling of pom-pom-pom-poms, each vicious enough to be a whip snap, as Gibbons despairs, unable to connect with "a savior come my way." "We Carry On" conducts a forced march with a synth loop and a martial snare, repeating like a mantra of negation. The quiet acoustic guitar plaint that opens "Small" gives way to the contortions of a demented organ.

"Third" is a gnarled skin of loose ends: the fragile, would-be hymn of "Deep Water," complete with ukulele and barbershop-esque guest backing vocals, is flotsam bobbing up awkwardly between the electronic rough trade of "Machine Gun" and "We Carry On." "Silence" cuts off prematurely, yanking us out of its hypnotic rhythm and into the chime that starts off the much slower "Hunter." Gibbons' acoustic moments recall the dark folk of Out of Season but are undigested asides, insufficiently incorporated.

Highlights "The Rip" and "Magic Doors" show that in the 21st century, Portishead still have the power to transfix. "The Rip" lays its delicate Iz-like acoustic picking over a low, alien whirring, and as it grabs Gibbons' last pre-bridge lyric and draws it out over the next minute, the track builds with toms and an electronic pulse, until she re-enters with the next verse. The hurdy gurdy-outfitted "Magic Doors" wobbles at first, but Portishead nail the piece together with perfectly timed Rhodes piano. It's a resounding clangor of safety in a disquieting world.

1 comment:

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