Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Portishead – Third

So far this year, some of our favorites oldies — see the Breeders, Portishead, and, of course, the B-52’s — have released new albums that more or less picked-up where they left off, updating the sound some, not losing steps in the process. They’re obviously three very different bands, so doing a contrast/compare wouldn’t make sense, but still, let’s say it: Portishead win the “gloomiest comeback” of the year award. This a good thing. Very. The Bristol crew would flail out-of-water if they tried affixing any cheer. Atmospherically, lyrically, emotionally, Third is plenty fucking submerged, but it also has a newfound dynamic crest: You can’t label it trip-hop like you would (and did) Dummy, and it’s a rawer, rockier ride than Portishead. Beth, Geoff, and Adrian don’t wait long before introducing us to the new angles.

People who listen closely, took notes, or went to Wikipedia should recognize a number of the tracks: At the recent ATP performances, the band did “Hunter,” “Machine Gun”, “Silence” (while it was called “Wicca”), “The Rip” (as “Mystic”), and “We Carry On” (as “Peaches”). “Peaches”?

The ominous whirl of the opener “Silence,” has what could credibly be termed “Slint-y guitars” and up-tempo Silver Apples (or, traveling overseas, “Kraut-y”) percussion. Like the title may suggest, there’s no Beth until the two minute mark. The first time we listened, we wondered if they were hitting us with an introductory instrumental. Third shifts gears with “Hunter” — the track’s introduced with the sound of fairytale pixie dust, then rolls into smoky Twin Peaks cabaret.

Returning to the water metaphor, there are a number of moments that sound like a sinking ship — swirling eddies abound. (Then there’s “Deep Water,” which is, like, literal.) They constantly switch it up, though, allow you to come up for breath etc. “We Carry On” carries on the Faustian percussion and Silver Apple oscillations, taking on more elements by the minute. After it’s final flume, you get the aforementioned fragile, uke-plucked doo-wop spiritual “Deep Water.” It’s in turn followed by the distorted, deep and ricocheting percussion of the aptly titled “Machine Gun.” At first, this one’s reminiscent of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” but the poppy synths don’t arrive; instead, you get a slightly off-kilter, angelic, dub hymn.

Then comes “Small,” a spare nighttime track accented by a creaky cello, or something. The song’s speaker’s talking about “the night we met” and “the taste of wine [she’ll] never forget.” Beth’s voice is strained and doubled: “You tried to understand, but you’re just a man, hoping to score … just like me.” You assume it’s some more pastoral sleepytime stuff, but mid song, a Can-ish organ starts, along with drums, and then things kick back into ’70s Germanic musics. The layering continues — a vibrato guitar, etc. — before returning back to the original sound, though the cello hits more like organ drone.

Third’s an intense trek. After the first few listens, it seemed like perhaps the almost seven-minute “Small” was the place to end the album, but again, the band rightly continues the ebb and flow to its final, totally gorgeous resting place: The next-to-final song and major standout, “Magic Doors,” opens with a high-pitched tone that disappears so a bare drum kit can kick in and then Beth sings “I can’t deny what I’ve become, I’m just emotionally undone,” over what sounds like an accordion trying to be a bagpipe. Guitar strums add a softer feel, though you also get noisy skronk sax.

Everything ends with the thin, icy “Threads.” It’s quieter, Beth can’t find the worse to say. The percussion’s light, the guitar plucked rather than held and sustained. Again, it seems like we’re going out with a soporific ballad, but then it all picks up with true crunch — dynamics! By the end, she’s not just singing about being worn out, she’s nearly shouting, “I’m always so unsure” in near caterwaul. Beth doesn’t get Third’s last words, though. The record exits on heavily-distorted, bassy notes: Like a ship’s foghorn, already too close, and you can’t avoid the crash.

Great stuff.

See y’all at Coachella! Hope you don’t cheer up by then.

Third is out 4/28 on Mercury/Island.

Premature Evaluation: Portishead - Third

Tags: Portishead