Third time unlucky?
Almost every review of Portishead’s ‘Third‘ opens with a summary account of trip hop, with mentions of coffee tables and dinner parties. Musical snobbery conspires to dictate who listens to music and how it is listened to. The fact that ‘Dummy‘ became universally successful or featured in the soundtrack for This Life, for example, should not detract from the fact it was a great album, no matter who listened to it. Certainly, when ‘Dummy‘ was first released in the UK in 1994 it was startlingly original and the fact that the likes of Morcheeba and Moloko imitated their sound (superficially, I might add) shouldn’t cloud our appraisal of that classic nearly 15 years on.
So maligned is the genre of Trip Hop that the true innovators of the scene, especially in the Bristol area, have often been unfairly grouped with those simply riding the bandwagon. Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and co. seem likewise desperate to distance themselves from mainstream appeal and ‘Third‘ sees them move further down a path of uncompromising gloom and claustrophobic atmospherics begun on their self-titled second LP ten years ago.
While much has been made of Third‘s more esoteric approach to absorbing influences – there are no hip hop scratches on this album, and no stylised Eartha Kit vocal contortions from Gibbons, no John Barry/James Bond torch songs – the global Portishead mood hasn’t changed radically. We are still in a bleak, industrial coastal town, and Gibbons is still a lovelorn obsessive, her depth of feeling seemingly bordering on the psychotic.
‘Third‘ sees Barrow marry an austere range of antiquated keyboards and Teutonic drum machines to spidery prog-rock guitars. The absrasive textures resemble those employed by Broadcast but are used in a wholly different way. While Broadcast often assemble these metallic, vintage electronics to create something with a retro pop sensibility, Portishead are more concerned with bleak, industrial moods. The entire record seems to be recorded in sparse analogue, and I spent the first couple of listens fiddling with the bass and trebble settings, in vain.
There are few moments of levity on an oppressive and lengthy album, bar the brief barbershop-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea ditty ‘Deep Water’. For me, this is what stops ‘Third‘ becoming a truly great album – its relentlessly oppressive mood. Furthermore, while the sonic landscape is more expansive – song times run into six minutes, and have more freeform, jazzier structures than before – Gibbons’ songwriting isn’t as sharp as on previous recordings. As a fan of her stunning solo effort with Rustin’ Man Paul Webb, ‘Out of Season‘, I think the songs on ‘Third‘ don’t quite match the peak of her talents.
While much of the album is growing on me after initial disappointment, I doubt I’ll ever want to listen to the dirge-like melodrama of the closer ‘Threads’ or the prolonged misery of ‘Small’, which is akin to watching an Ingma Bergman film on a rainy day, after a funeral. However, the likes of ‘Silence’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘The Rip’ are starting to burn indeliably on my mind. If you like this, you might like Broadcast’s ‘Ha Ha Sound‘ or Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac‘.