by Sasha Frere-Jones
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.
Barrow is from the town of Portishead, twelve miles west of Bristol, where he met the guitarist Adrian Utley and the singer Beth Gibbons in the early nineties. He was in his twenties, and his musical skills were mostly non-traditional: mastery of turntables and samplers. He guided Utley and Gibbons into an aesthetic that was more appealing than their record company expected: sepulchral music that sounded like a warm, thick reduction of hip-hop, flecked with samples of soundtracks and dominated by the heady cry of a female singer who sometimes became so unhinged that it seemed as if the music itself were scaring her. “Nobody loves me,” she wailed over and over in “Sour Times,” the song that made Portishead famous. The band succeeded as miserabilists with high production values and a knack for the gorgeous and the odd—the booming, plangent bass and the sophisticated lady singer.
For their second, self-titled album, released three years later, the band members upended what had made them Portishead. They abandoned sampling almost entirely and engaged in obsessive strategies like writing and recording instrumental passages, pressing the results to vinyl, distressing the disk, and then sampling this edition of one. Meanwhile, Gibbons reduced the dram of playfulness in her vocals—almost always written separately from the tracks that Barrow and Utley created—and came across less like a complex, lovelorn woman than like an insomniac lighthouse keeper with a wonky stereo. (All that womb-like bass? Gone!)
What was best about the second record was the third record, a live album recorded in 1997 and 1998. Here’s a band led by a guy who plays turntables, whose recordings are a patchwork of machines and instruments playing parts that are rarely notated and are then mixed to resonate like dance records—how do you reproduce all of this using an orchestral string section, horns, and a rock band? “Roseland NYC Live” is a sucker punch, and the band had such confidence in it that a DVD was also released. This might be its best album. The performance integrates many instruments, amplified in dissimilar ways, with no feedback. (Did these guys have the longest sound check in history?) Songs, some of which bear no resemblance to their recorded versions, move cleanly among passages of near-silence, little bursts of scratching or electric guitar, and swells of orchestral oomph. Beth Gibbons, who almost never gives interviews, is comfortable onstage and goes through a little flip book of vocal styles in a rearrangement of “Sour Times,” including a flirty imitation of Billie Holiday and a rapid, harsh vibrato that could be described as a banshee wail if that term hadn’t been wasted on lesser singers. Every time I hear the record, I’m surprised.
There followed years of agitation, false starts, divorces, scrapped sessions, and then, finally, Portishead’s third studio album in fourteen years. If I told you that I expected much from this album, I would be lying, but when I finally got “Third” I played little else for weeks. What kids in 2008 will make of these spooky perfectionists is beyond me. This is not a time for lovingly made, high-fidelity sound art, but I’m guessing that a Portishead tour could attract not only a variety of young Radiohead fans who missed “Dummy” but other outliers who like some heft in their gloom.
The opener, “Silence,” announces a distinct break with the hip-hop rhythms that have long grounded the band. A distorted voice, speaking Portuguese with a Brazilian accent, recites lines derived from Wiccan lore: “Be alert to the rule of three. What you give will return to you. You must learn that lesson. You only gain what you deserve.” Birds chirp, a guitar worries away at a note, a bass line unfolds luxuriously, and the drums—the center of Barrow’s aesthetic—are dirty and clumpy, playing a pattern that people call tribal, but it isn’t part of any particular genre. It simply rolls, and it sounds, as Barrow said he wanted it to, “remote.” (His reference point was Ali and Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle.) Gibbons isn’t remote at all; she’s up front, and where Portishead needs her—in misery. “Tempted in our minds, tormented inside life, wounded and afraid, inside my head, falling through changes,” she sings. The song builds and builds, with neither verse nor chorus, and stops abruptly.
“Hunter” yields to fans wishing the old Portishead would come back; the song could be a midnight café number deleted from a 1965 Michel Legrand soundtrack for being, you know, too midnighty. Gibbons seems to be feeling no better, though she has raised her broken wing and is seeking help: “And if I should fall, would you hold me, would you pass me by?” Then, just when she needs everyone to cool it, a brawny guitar groan—not unlike the opening of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”—drops in and blocks out almost everything but her voice. “Third” is calibrated in this manner, an inverse of “Roseland Live NYC” ’s impeccable balance: it’s a zero-sum game, with every sound at war with every other sound. The hierarchy is unclear. Anything might be the heart of a song, and even Gibbons herself gets covered up sometimes.
There are several pleasantly indigo numbers, but the album works best when it spits in your eye. The first single, “Machine Gun,” isn’t going to reassure anybody who’s waiting for 1994 to return. The beat seems to be an inexpensive drum machine trying to imitate an automatic weapon, treated with a lot of reverb. That’s pretty much it, apart from something that’s sort of like a chord. Gibbons sings about the “poison in my heart” and eventually multitracks a chorus of her own voice, a demented medieval quartet. The drum machine makes way for its older brother, equally noisy but deeper, and then a filtered version of one, or maybe the other. No chord, no bass line, no melody beyond Gibbons’s voice until four minutes in, as a synthesizer keens a minor-key figure.
The band’s new disjunction comes off best in “Plastic,” a song that had me moving around the room in search of weird noises. I finally returned to my computer, convinced that there were several pop-up windows open at once, little widgets creating crosscurrents of unrelated audio. Nope, just “Plastic.” What sounds like rotating helicopter blades is in no time signature; a drum roll is too loud and suggests that it might not have been put in the right place: buzzes and static made me move my cell phone away from the speakers. One crackle still sounds like a mastering error, though I will love it even more if it turns out to be intentional. “Third” is music by people starting from scratch and for people who want to utterly pulverize boredom. And, eventually, eat.