Ten Divided by Three
From 1994 to 1998 the Bristol, England trio Portishead released three stunning LPs of sad beats and atmospheres that helped establish the trip-hop genre. Sadder still, afterwards they gradually retreated from the musical landscape. Music snobs might be loathe to admit this, but Portishead’s extended absence may have helped kill trip-hop as much as their presence helped birth it. Portishead’s new album Third doesn’t really sound like it took 10 years to make, and it’s going to at least remind you of the best of their past, but it also leapfrogs over the trip-hop label towards the future.
The trembling diva stylings of Beth Gibbons and the instrumentation of Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow remain cloaked in the trappings of film noir. For those keeping score at home, 1994’s landmark Dummy could have represented spy-movie love scenes; music from their self-titled 1997 album would fit dramatic expositions, with protagonists sneaking around for clues; their 1998 live orchestral experiment PNYC might recall themes under opening and closing credits. On Third, however, Portishead embrace musical aggression and confrontation to create sonic familiars of the archvillain’s reveal, the torture scene, the chase scene.
With the exception of her Grace Slick turn on album closer “Threads” Gibbons’ delivery is as airy as ever, so she doesn’t immediately suggest conflict unless you picture her as the damsel (or 9-year-old girl) in distress. Her lyrics do, though; lines like “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this” cut a swath through “Nylon Smile.” The most drama is found here in Utley and Barrow’s production, which hits the ground running on “Silence.” Possibly a defiant commentary by Portishead on their career path, this first track starts with a Portuguese lecture on karma coming back to you threefold and ends in the middle of a measure, as if cut off by a car crash or a gunshot.
Outside of an obvious presence on “Plastic,” the hip-hop sample mining that once defined the trio’s sound is kept to a minimum. In its place we find new equipment in the Portishead arsenal. There’s the Sun Ra-esque sax break amid the dour cowbell funk of “Magic Doors.” We hear chugging krautrock momentum in “We Carry On” and dark tropicalia in “Hunter.” First single “Machine Gun” is full of impossibly heavy pads, while psychedelic rock and folk color “Threads” and “Deep Water,” respectively.
Piled high with these disparate influences and palpable tension, Third is a significant departure from the cool, calm, suave feel that defined Dummy and Portishead. Some longtime fans likely won’t call this a trip-hop classic by virtue of it reaching near-Tricky levels of impenetrability, claiming there are such things as being too dark, being too complex, trying too hard. We suspect many other fans won’t call this a trip-hop classic only because there’s no real trip-hop to be made anymore, and will instead just call this a classic, period.