The old man stepped onto our boat out of the utter blackness that falls between the abrupt fall of twilight, at five o’clock, and the rising of the full moon. His name was Phani Gayen, and he was employed at the Saznekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, in the mangrove forest on the northern border of India’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where we were moored. Formerly, he was a crab fisherman, taking his small, pole-punted boat down along the forest’s brackish tidal creeks and narrow channels. On June 23, 1984, at half past noon, he had gone into the forest with companions to collect wood. He turned and found a tiger springing for him, roaring. “I was then forty-five years old and very, very strong,” he said. “I did not allow the tiger’s face to touch my face.” He stroked his Adam’s apple. “The tiger’s throat is very hard, here.” As the tiger gripped him with its paws, its head hung over his shoulder, drenching his shirt with saliva. “I knew I was going to die. So I embraced the tiger. He was soft. The tiger was soft. Like a sponge.” Somehow, this surrender freed him—the tiger released him and turned on one of his companions. Taking the companion by the throat, the tiger headed back into the forest.
The claw wounds on Gayen’s head and face kept him in the hospital for three months. The wounds healed, but his ear was damaged permanently. Over the years, he had told his story many times. “I no longer fear the tiger,” he declared, his scarred face lit by the yellow bulb that our boat’s generator powered. “It is the tiger’s nature.” But he avoids entering the forest.
Veering southwest, we entered a new network of creeks, cutting diagonally into the interior of Pirkhali, a block of islands measuring roughly a hundred and fifty square kilometres and marked on maps as being “dense mixed jungle.” “There are resident tigers at Pirkhali,” Dr. Sanyal said. “As well as those that visit.” We entered an arm of the Gosaba River, which broadened to open, long views down its straight course.
In an interview with the London Observer several months ago, Geoff Barrow, the leader of the British trio Portishead, complained, “They turned our songs into a fondue set.” “They” could be anyone—critics, fans, or the commercial concerns that have tried to license the band’s music for film or TV. But Portishead brought the cheese bath on itself—when your sound is languid and spacious, and your female singer is generally not a screamer, your albums are going to become hotel-lobby music, even if they’re brilliant. When the band released its startlingly complete début, “Dummy,” in 1994, it encountered a crisis common among delicate musicians: success and failure both feel like slights. Fans loved the band, but did they get it? Did people hear more than just dinner music? Portishead’s new album, “Third,” which is actually its fourth, sounds like nothing else on offer now, but that won’t prevent people from playing it in the background and breaking out the long forks. No matter. “Third” is at times delightfully abrasive, but the band members seem to have accepted that being soothing, despite their perverse streak, is part of what they do—even if the music, upon closer inspection, isn’t reassuring.
By JON PARELES
photo - Adam Faraday/Mojo
GEOFF BARROW has an objective for his band, Portishead. He wants it to be “the opposite of rock ’n’ roll,” even if he hasn’t entirely figured out what that is. After all, it was a taste of the rock ’n’ roll life that made Portishead disappear for a decade while the band’s otherworldly mixture of modern dread, retro samples and torch-song yearning lingered on soundtracks and boutique playlists.
On the two morosely startling albums that made Portishead’s reputation when it came out of England in the 1990s, Beth Gibbons’s voice and words were bereft and bitter, floating in music that placed vintage samples in sparse, echoey backdrops, conjuring emotional abysses and the irrevocable passage of time. The band itself was self-effacing, but word of mouth, from introvert to introvert, worked as much as radio play to cultivate devoted fans. According to Nielsen SoundScan, Portishead’s debut album, “Dummy,” sold 1.1 million copies and its second, “Portishead,” sold 635,000. Then, after touring and a live follow-up album, Portishead faded out.
Now Portishead has rematerialized, resuming a career that has always moved in slow motion. “It’s amazing how quickly 10 years can go,” said Adrian Utley, who plays guitars and keyboards, over coffee at an elegant Munich hotel the night before the band’s performance. “There was no sense that we would split up or we weren’t going to do anything again. We just didn’t want to for that time.”
Ms. Gibbons in concert with the band in Berlin this month
photo - Oliver Hartung for The New York Times
Song Excerpt: Nylon Smile (mp3)
Song Excerpt: Hunter (mp3)
Song Excerpt: Silence (mp3)