First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed April 30, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
"…the agony I feel."
"Of course, I care."
"What did I do to deserve you?"
"…white horses to take me away…"
Ten years on, and Portishead’s lyrics still sound like excerpts from the diary of a talented, yet troubled teenager. This would be fine if the members of the British band were still in their adolescence, but those days are long gone. Nevertheless, they clearly remain enamored with the "I fall upon the thorns of life/I bleed" school of Romantic poetry that was championed by writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley. The thing is — most of those poets died in their early 20s while they were still entwined in post-adolescent theatrics. So, what is Beth Gibbons' excuse? She’s certainly old enough to know better. Yet, she refuses to curb her melodramatic ruminations. The gothic obsessions of her lyrics increasingly are difficult to swallow, and for this reason, it is hard to assess Third, Portishead’s latest effort, in a clear light.
Portishead evolved within the trip-hop scene that dominated England throughout the early 1990s. Much like its compatriots from Bristol — which included Thievery Corporation, Massive Attack, and Tricky — the outfit bent genres that ranged from jazz to hip-hop, while adding doses of psychedelic and industrial music to its rich sonic mix. Between 1994 and 1998, the group released a pair of studio albums (Dummy and its self-titled sophomore set) as well as a live set (PNYC) before parting ways to pursue the solo projects that have trickled to market during the better part of the past decade.
Because it attracted such a critical and devoted following during its first incarnation, it goes without saying that Portishead was under a lot of pressure to create something special for its long-awaited follow-up. In many ways, the group has succeeded quite nicely. Beth Gibbons’ voice is just as graceful, nuanced, and powerful as it ever was. The tones that Adrian Utley coaxes from his guitar are remarkable in how he manages to sound melodic and lyrical while also cranking out some of the raunchiest industrial textures this side of Buckethead. Multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow’s production treatments and atmospheric textures unobtrusively echo the sentiments that are suggested by each of Third’s tracks. The underlying instrumental passages over which Gibbons sings are divine and challenging; one only wishes that the songs themselves were better.
At times, Gibbons’ angst is perfectly reflected by the music, and one is left wondering if, perhaps, the industrial clatter that Barrow creates in tracks like Hunter is somehow ironic. On occasion, primarily when Gibbons is wading deeply into the muck of her romantic torpor, the arrangements reflect a more sophisticated emotional range than the lyrics otherwise suggest. The instrumentation salvages tunes like Nylon Smile and Machine Gun by elevating them above the Mariah Carey-on-Prozac tailspin that is conjured by the poetry. It is precisely the manner in which the music rescues the songs that prevents Third from becoming an overwrought disaster.
In the end, Third probably will please most of Portishead’s fans. After all, it is a faithful re-creation of the sound that endeared the outfit to so many people in the first place. One can only hope, however, that if there is a follow-up to Third, it will reflect a more mature lyrical universe that encompasses a full spectrum of emotions rather than just the torment in which Gibbons clearly loves to wallow.
Of Further Interest...
Third is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box