Music Blogs - Blogged Blog Directory Add to Technorati Favorites

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Portishead: "Third"

A 10-year hiatus is enough to make even the most optimistic fan doubtful. Portishead decided to stop making music together back in the late nineties, so it's hard to believe that there were many people out there holding out hope for a comeback by the time the band started to reemerge in 2005. But now, basically 11 years after their last studio album was released, the trip hop pioneers have been gracious enough to give us another fantastic album; whether we were expecting it or not.

From the very beginning, long time fans will notice that Third has a very different feel from their previous two albums. The album begins with a seemingly insignificant soundbite of a man speaking in Portuguese. He speaks of the Wiccan "Rule of Three," which is similar to the "golden rule" in Christianity or Karma in Eastern religions. Essentially it means that any energy put out by a person will be returned to him, be it good or bad. The lyrics of the song reflect this cyclical idea. Beth moans in the song's chorus, "Did you know when you lost?/ Did you know when I wanted?/ Did you know what I lost?/ Did you know what I wanted?" It is a haunting way to reintroduce yourself to the world, but in many ways its sets the tone for Third.

On "Hunter," a neo-noir masterpiece, Beth's vocals float hauntingly over acoustic guitars and a jazz kit. In the chorus, Beth coldly questions, "And if I should fall/ would you hold me?/ Would you pass me by?" The song breaks down several times with a jarring 4-note synth line that serves to add to the song's already frightening nature. "Nylon Smile" is more in line with Portishead of old, with a very cool reverse-synth line that carries throughout the song's 3 1/2 minutes. Beth sings of self-doubt and her need to change into someone that she can stand. She sings, "I struggle with myself/ hoping I might change a little/ hoping that I might be/ someone I want to be." It's a beautiful song despite its depressing subject matter.

"The Rip" is a personal favorite of mine, being the first song on the album that got stuck in my head. In the song's first half, Beth sings, "Wild white horses/ they will take me away/ and the tenderness I feel/ will send the dark underneath/ Will I follow?" over a simple acoustic guitar and what sounds like an oboe in the distance. Those lyrics are gorgeous, people. Also gorgeous is then the acoustic guitar that is soon replaced with a moog-ish synth sound. It's one of the album's cooler moments and I can't get enough of it!  It's followed by "Plastic," a less poppy, darker affair.  Its chorus is complemented by bombastic drums and a thick electronic buzz-saw of a bass.  The production here is incredible, taking seemingly incompatible parts and making them sound fluid and natural.

"We Carry On" takes a bass-heavy, industrial beat and carries it throughout its length, adding in sketchy guitars and minimalist drums as it progresses.  It's one of Third's most memorable songs, if only for its persistence.  Where other songs tend to be somewhat reluctant, this one charges out of the gate and never lets up, forcing the listener to perk up and listen intently.  "Deep Water" is the album's only "upper."  Featuring nothing but a ukulele and vocals, it is a hopeful song about overcoming adversity.  Beth sings in a childlike whimper, "I'm drifting in deep waters/ alone with my self doubting again/ try not to struggle this time/ for I will weather the storm."  It's one of my favorite songs on Third, mostly because it's a glimmer of hope in an album that is as bleak as they come.

"Machine Gun," the album's first single, features a commanding drum loop and Beth's haunting vocals almost exclusively.  Beth is left to harmonize with herself, and the end result is truly affecting.  Still, the song can get a bit repetitive by the time the haunted house synths come in at the 4-minute mark.  It's a decent song, to be sure, but there is better on Third.  Case in point: "Small," the album's longest and most chilling track.  It starts out softly, with Beth crooning, "If I remember the night that we met/ tasted a wine that I'll never forget/ open the doorway and saw through the light / motions of movement, and I felt alive."  It slowly builds, adding an upright bass and harmonies before busting out with one of the album's trip-hoppiest chord progressions.  After several minutes of uptempo grooves, the instrumentation once again drops out, leaving only the bass and vocals.

"Magic Doors" gives the albums one of its catchier tunes, and it's one of the few that I can even picture myself singing along to.  It features Third's most upfront arrangement, with lush instrumentation throughout, including, a steady drum beat, synths, a piano, and bass.  It's a great song, and a wonderful change of pace.  The band slows things back down for the closer, however, and it's simply stunning!  "Threads" is a song that is brilliantly arranged, with nothing feeling excessive or lacking.  It changes pace unpredictably, and features Beth's best vocal performance on the album - possibly ever!  The moment comes at about the 4:05 mark when Beth begins singing with every ounce of her being.  To be honest, the first time I listened to  Third, I wasn't that impressed with Beth's vocals.  I felt like she spent too much time trying to sound like a floaty witch, even when the music didn't require it.  But this one moment completely negated my concerns, and made me realize just what she was trying to accomplish with her vocal stylings. 

If Third could be described in a single word, that word would be "claustrophobic." From the very beginning to it's amazing conclusion, Third is an album that exudes hopelessness and despair. Listening to it, I can't help but close my eyes and picture the band playing inside of a tiny cell, desperately longing to be free.  There are glimpses of hope - beams of light shining through a tiny cell window - but the overall mood that is conveyed with Third is incredibly bleak.  As such, many of the more radio-friendly sides of Portishead have been shed to make way for a sound that is much more raw, more emotional and real. Whether this album is even definable as "trip hop" is debatable. I have heard the term "torture chamber pop," applied too, which is definitely headed in the right direction. As it stands though, Third is a difficult album to define, and Portishead should be credited with that.  It is an album whose technical merits are outdone only by the emotional shadow that it casts on its listener.  It is unlike anything I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, and it is a journey that absolutely needs to be experienced!

Key Tracks:
1. "Hunter"
2. "The Rip"
3. "Deep Water"
4. "Magic Doors"
5. "Threads"

9 out of 10 Stars

No comments: