It’s been years since I’ve felt the kind of euphoric thrill I used to experience growing up when I listened to a new album for the very first time. You could chalk it up to the fact that being a music critic sometimes numbs the listening experience, but it’s also likely due to the way new music is disseminated and consumed today, how you can read detailed, track-by-track descriptions or listen to audio clips months in advance, and how songs leak in drips and drabs, so that by the time an album is released, you’ve already heard most of it in varying degrees of quality. In the decade since Portishead’s last album, the world entered a new century, we watched teen-pop, rap-metal, and garage-rock come and go, and of course, we witnessed the most significant and tumultuous political events of a generation. When the hopes for new music have been ratcheted up so high and so often by rabid fans, the blogosphere, and even the band members themselves (and then deflated just as often), and when said band works in such secrecy and the music has been kept under such tight wraps that you start to believe Geoff Barrow when he jokes that Portishead’s recording process is not unlike a scene from Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, the anticipation makes the release of those recordings an indisputable Event.
In my review of 1997’s Portishead, I argued that the group’s junior studio effort would be essential to validate that album’s angsty Middle Child Syndrome. If possible, the Bristol trip-hop pioneers’ Third is starker, leaner, and more dissonant than its immediate sibling; it’s less cinematic, less dramatic in the traditional sense, possibly even less melodic, and though it might not be a conscious response to recent world events, the beats are more industrial and militaristic—pulsating like helicopter propellers and snapping with fascistic rigor. There’s always been a punk aesthetic to trip-hop, particularly in the brand coming out of Bristol (a city whose musical history is as rich as its location is unknown to most Americans: Smith & Mighty, Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry, Nellee Hooper, Tricky, and Roni Size all hail from the English cultural hot spot), but much of the music that followed in its wake was significantly watered down—perfect fodder for downtempo compilations and Target commercials. Rather than start producing more commercially viable music, which is often the progression of aging artists (Barrow is now a father; singer Beth Gibbons released a more subdued folk album in 2002), Portishead have done the exact opposite. The decidedly more guitar-driven Third is their most experimental album to date.
As if waiting over 10 years wasn’t long enough, it’s a full two minutes into Third before we’re even sure what we’re hearing is a Portishead album at all (unless, of course, you speak Portuguese, in which case you’d be tipped off by the opening sample of a man referencing the LP’s title by warning of the Wiccan “Rule of Three”). It’s like reuniting with an old friend after years of estrangement: At first, the friend appears completely changed, but even if their hair is a different color, or their weight has drastically fluctuated, you still instantly recognize their eyes, and the more time you spend with them, the more you see those subtle but familiar movements, gestures, and expressions, now informed by a new decade’s worth of life. Though the banshee and the coquette have been toned down or banished altogether, respectively, Gibbons is as exquisitely morose as ever: She’s “fallen through changes,” she tells us on “Silence,” the album’s opening track, and she’s still “tormented,” “wounded,” and “afraid.” The next song, “Hunter,” is like some twisted zombie prom dance from 50 years ago, which, let’s face it, has always been Portishead’s modus operandi. There’s enough on Third (spaghetti-western guitars, organs, barking effects) to sate those who pine for the late ‘90s, but gone is the turntable scratching, ostensibly deemed too much of a relic from that decade; in its place are more electronic flourishes, like the cyclic synth-bass loop that softens the second half of “The Rip,” a song which is proof positive that Goldfrapp would never exist without Portishead.
Barrow seems to be even more of a creative driving force than in the past, as most of Gibbons’s lyrics amount to little more than detailing how she can’t find the words to express her manic depression, and her vocals are less prominent, particularly on tracks like “We Carry On,” “Machine Gun,” and “Small,” which are largely canvases for Barrow and guitarist Adrian Utley to noodle around on. If the undercurrent of “Hunter” teases us with the prospect of an uncharacteristic 4/4 beat, “We Carry On” fulfills it with an incessant, machine-like stomp, and while the song’s garage-rock guitar might have sounded a little fresher had the Raveonettes, the White Stripes, and others not already revived the sound, it’s thrilling to hear it in this context nonetheless. The folk song “Deep Water” serves as an interlude between “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun,” the album’s two most aggressive tracks (the latter featuring literalized rapid-fire drum programming and synth pads straight out of an early-‘80s John Carpenter film), and Gibbons’s value and input shouldn’t be dismissed outright, as the singer’s Out of Season functions as a missing link between Portishead and Third—an album whose final, glorious 90 seconds play out like an ominous fugue announcing the return of a royal army.