April 28th 2008
After a decade-long hiatus, Portishead will release their third record in late April. I was very glad to have had the chance to listen to their new material. At first I wasn’t won over. I went back and listened to 1994’s Dummy and 1997’s self-titled release to contrast where this band has come from with where they are going. It occurred to me that when everyone was listing to Portishead in the States back in 96-97, the band bridged many genres. Their fan base was rooted in so called trip-hop, but had cross-overs from house, goth-industrial, psychedelia, hip-hop, fem-rock, and of course the precocious indie-kid prototypes. You had Alanis Morissette lovers coolly bobbing their head to the beat while standing next to dudes named Wraith with eyeliner and facial tattoos. Portishead had cast a wide net when attracting fans.
When speaking of Portishead, suits working in Manhattan have exclaimed, “Ah yeah, I remember them. I love them.” When listening to their new genre bending concoction Third, remember their predicament in reclaiming an audience. Fond memories aside, can Portishead produce anything relevant to reverse their fans’ genre dispersal or attract new listeners who may not have been around for their first two records? Portishead has answered with a resounding yes.
Third opens with a series of tracks that remind us of their dark experimental heritage. Silence, Hunter, and Nylon Smile are in the best sense traditional Portishead, albeit without the emphasized vinyl mixing. No where on this record will you find the turntable scratching of Western Eyes or Only You. Clearly Portishead is not trying to recapture elements of their past. The lyrics are depressed and relaxed, sexy and sad, and in true form this relaxation is not brought on by contentment or happiness, rather it sounds opiate induced. It conjures the image of a dim room with the yellow haze of a poppy parlor. Hunter would be a great song to accompany the opening credits of a modern 007 film.
Rip begins the next series of songs on the record that emphatically asserts Portishead’s attention to modern music trends. A simple acoustic guitar track transforms and builds into a song layered by Nintendo quality synthetic melodies and a straightforward beat. Plastic follows, reintroducing their DJ aspect, but with a decidedly electronic component. The beat and melody line from We Carry On oddly enough seems like something right out of Trent Reznor’s library. Not to suggest that they have become derivative or unoriginal. Conversely, this only highlights the changes in texture and instrumentation that Portishead have made. The series ends with a beautiful track called Deep Water that lasts all of 1:39. It is the musical antithesis of what has come to be expected from Portishead, yet it strongly maintains their aura with the sensuous voice of Beth Gibbons, a ukulele, and the faint backup vocals that hum like a distant steam engine whistle.
Portishead has made an exceptional record that is unconstrained. Earlier records attracted a large following utilizing a relatively consistent and unique formula. Portishead was Portishead. As mentioned earlier, they attracted listeners from a variety of musical subgroups, but they operated within a fairly rigid structure that defined their unique style. Ten years later they have offered a record that is unabashedly multifocal and multimodal. Look out for juxtapositions like the industrial electronics of Machine Gun and the psychedelia of Small, two songs from the latter half of the record. It is this exhibition of range that makes their new music so sweet. Portishead has engaged their audiences outside of their standard form without pandering or over extending their vast talent.
Roseland NYC Live- 1998