Engaging with music (or any of the arts) is one of the greatest, most edifying experiences life has to offer. Arguably the most insuperable barrier to this engagement is expectation. It’s a mistake that arises all too easily; our past experiences (pleasurable or otherwise) construct the likelihood of a similar future, resulting in a travesty of closed-minded thinking, masquerading as openness. But any encounter, afflicted with the weight of expectation, is distorted before it has even begun. Portishead‘s new album, Third (released on 28 April), causes this temptation to rear its head in a particularly powerful way. Their eponymous last release, in 1997, ranks as one of the most brilliant and original albums by any artist of the 20th century; that, followed by a 10-year wait for new material, makes the likelihood of expectations very high. But we must leave any and all such high hopes at the door; back in the 90s Portishead got our attention by surprising us, made their mark through a focused, confident and innovative single-mindedness of expression. The most we can allow is to anticipate something of quality; anything more is an affront to their artistry – indeed it is the ultimate insult, demanding from them what we want to hear. Third – like any other release by any other artist (indeed, any encounter of any kind) – must be approached on its own terms, and be allowed to express itself in whatever way it needs to; our expectations can only stifle and obfuscate (or, worse, judge) what we are hearing.
From the opening track, “Silence”, ambiguity appears from every direction: the irregular metre (which suggests different speeds simultaneously), the tonally ambiguous passacaglia (a Portishead trademark), made yet more obtuse by the vocal melody, and ultimately its shockingly abrupt ending, which throws a strange, sinister light on the song as a whole – why has the music been so suddenly silenced? It’s a bewildering but attention-grabbing statement of intent. The languid beauty of “Hunter” makes it seem, at first, more grounded, but it turns out to be no less ambiguous, with quirky electronic interjections occasionally punctuating the ends of phrases. These first two tracks establish an intense melancholy, and this is given a gently rhythmic momentum in “Nylon Smile”; the texture, all soft guitars and muted percussion, is crepescular and claustrophobic, a strange combination. Darker and more minimalistic is “The Rip”, a restrained vocal brooding over arpeggios that gradually shift from acoustic to electronic; Portishead have often drawn on sources that sound dated, and this track extends that. Perhaps the most unsettling song on the album is “Plastic”, both weird – the drum breaks made to sound strangely artificial through being cut up and then crudely put back together – and oppressive, the background percussive noise seeming to grow ever more menacing; for the second time, though, the track ends abruptly, leaving one disoriented.
The central track, “We Carry On”, for once in Portishead’s music, establishes a driving pulse and a real sense of momentum; nonetheless, everything is firmly held in place by the variety of almost omnipresent, unshifting drones. With its significantly longer length (a shade under 6½ minutes), this music has a hypnotic, psychodelic flavour, perhaps redolent of The Doors. “Deep Water”, by contrast, is unbearably fragile, Beth Gibbons’ voice allowed to sing untreated and vulnerable, softly wailing the blues above a tragic ukelele; it’s one of the most striking songs on the album (certainly for anyone harbouring expectations!). But while this song reveals good things about Gibbons’ vocals, “Machine Gun” does the opposite. The texture, harsh and punctuating, seems to demand a different kind of vocal treatment, but she sings in exactly the same way as always. The result is that her voice sounds superimposed, at odds with that around her; it’s a shame, clarifying that Beth Gibbons’ voice is indeed as limited as their previous releases suggested, and that Portishead have to ensure the soundscapes they construct work sympathetically with her narrow expressive range. Here, probably the only time in their output, they’ve failed to judge it well. The longest track on the album, “Small”, is also, at times, the most restrained, a faux cello joining in the sombre introduction. This gives way quickly to another psychodelic episode, an evocative throwback to the 60s, with then alternates with the opening starkness before, yet again (but slightly more cleanly), abruptly finishing. “Magic Doors” is surprisingly characterless, even rather bland (Beth Gibbons inability to vary the loudness of her voice even slightly is a real handicap here), the distorted saxophone outbursts quirky rather than genuinely strange. Fortunately, this meagre offering is followed, and the album ended, by “Threads”, one of their finest songs. Circular guitar riffs atop hobbling percussion beneath softly distorted vocals: this is where Portishead find their perfect balance. It’s the ideal end track too, sounding almost slightly too quiet, like the final song sung in a club when almost everyone has gone home, all low lights and tiredness.
In my opinion, one of the chief things that makes Portishead’s music the wonder that it is, is a combination of elements that together creates something sounding utterly timeless. Their previous releases, listened to today, do not – unlike so much of the drivel that sought to sound like Portishead – sound like it dates from the 1990s at all. almost every aspect suggests a context different from its neighbours, yet somehow forming an integrated, honest, homogeneous whole. Third doesn’t take quite as many risks, but nonetheless, does demonstrate a range of expressive moods that adds up to a single, coherent atmosphere. It’s a revealing album, and sometimes what it reveals – especially about Beth Gibbons – is far from flattering. But most, it shows that Portishead remain the brazenly original group they’ve always been, undermining our great expectations and demonstrating that, when they get it right (which is, happily, most of the time), they’re absolutely in a class of their own.