Portishead was one of my ex-wife’s favorite bands. When we split and went through the obligatory “yours” and “mine” division, she got to keep the Portishead albums. She also got to keep the Morcheeba and Boards of Canada records, but I don’t really miss those. I did, however, miss those Portishead releases.
But because Portishead conjured up unfavorable memories of a part of my life, I resisted acquiring Third, the band’s first album in nearly a decade. They hold for me a soundtrack of depression, a couple dreading middle age to the point that they look for any opportunity to deaden the pain. Considering this, I still remember how good they were at that soundtrack.
Another reason why I held back was the reality that I am in a much different place now and I really have no interest in reliving the dread that was ten years ago. At the end of the day, I needed to reclaim some of my music that was tainted from a failed relationship and, as is the case of Portishead, needed to stop being afraid of the music that was introduced by her.
I’d like to report that Portishead is in a different place too, but alas, not much has changed from a lyrical standpoint. Beth Gibbons sounds as miserable as ever and the content of her themes…like herself…are older and more complex. So, what’s she been up to for the past ten years? She answers in words most middle-age people can understand, “I struggle with myself / Hoping I may change a little / Hoping that I may be someone I want to be.”
Musically, the genre that they practically invented is gone. Perhaps the two musical composers responsible for Portishead’s previous forays, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, understand that their former explorations have found a strange companion inside high-end retail clothing outlets around the world, seemingly reinforcing the pathos of shoppers who know they’re paying way too much for the shit they’re buying.
The pair goes beyond their past by incorporating more analog instruments, strange, yet simple arrangements, and through pushing the rhythms down in the mix. The result is an impressive display of sounds that is blatantly Portishead without really sounding the same.
The first comparisons I can come up with is the difference between Joy Division‘s Unknown Pleasures and the follow-up Closer. While Portishead certainly doesn’t sound like Joy Division (although they do mine similar ground on the outstanding “We Carry On”), it’s the best analogy I can come with when looking for two albums with very different textures, yet obviously originating from the same band. And while it only took Joy Division a year to find the formula in order to accomplish this, Portishead took their own sweet time making Third.
In scaling back the cinemascope samples and trip-hop grooves, Portishead has made the album you listen to after the therapy session or marriage counseling. It’s the mental ache that hits when the antidepressants wear off, spotlighting the dull reality that life is a lot harder that anyone let on to when you were growing up.
Like those feelings, Third is a very unsettling listen, both thematically and musically. It’s not something you’ll want to return to very often as it paints a very clear picture of how heavy our baggage has gotten over the past decade. Nonetheless, it’s an album who’s art is undeniable. No wonder some long-time fans are struggling with it; Third is a mirror that reflects our most uncomfortable neurosis right back at us. Despite this, Portishead has made an album where feeling bad has never sounded so good.
Video: Portishead – “The Rip”