No. 7: Portishead, “Third”

When it’s a rough year, some people instinctively reach for the serotonin-spike of all-smiles pop. Though I did play the hell out of that Alphabeat song, I’m generally one of those listeners who’d rather wallow in my funk. Give me hard times and I want a wrist-scarring playlist to match. And to go by the ever-reliable iTunes “Most Played” metric, my favorite new record of 2008—a year that felt poised for planetwide batshit breakdown—was the sonically variegated result of comically extended woodshedding by a much-mourned but presumed-mothballed trio who’d previously minted a very specific brand of drizzly Brit glumness. (Phew.)

Yet for as many blue moods and bad days and seasonally affected stretches Third soundtracked during the second half of my 2008, it sounded just as good on first release, during an all-too-brief and buoyant springtime. (Just in case it sounds like the trip’s only effective as some kinda reverse SSRI.) But I’d be lying if I said Third‘s long, dark tunnel didn’t just sound better during rain-slicked and overcast days, overtired early morning commutes, and evenings of sleepless worry. I had plenty of all three in 2008, and there was always Third, a new pal with a pleasing permafrown. Like I asked back in March, who was waiting for the first sunny entry in the Portishead discography?

But while Third works as moping music for moments of arrested goth adolescence, it’s also an album for grownups who get off on luxurious retro collage, made by two men and a woman who’ve put ten years of studio tinkering and groove cloning in service of a singularly sour vibe. If you ever thought Ege Bamyasi was lacking for edge-of-tears crooning, this is the album for you. And when the album first leaked, I was most impressed—as were most wistful old-school fans and semi-suspicious converts, I suspect—by how Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley had seamlessly stitched their Krautrock fanboyisms and analogue synth-funk homages into Portishead’s trad waxy jazz loops.

I kept returning, however, because Third‘s expert interpolations are more concerned with knotting up our viscera than showing off Utley and Barrow’s cut-and-paste virtuosity. Much of that gut-punch effect is down to how Beth Gibbons ratchets up her wracked affect, a shtick yr either for or against by now. But her moaning invocation of “white horses” on the majestic, ethereal sorta-rock of “The Rip” gives me a wicked case of the full-body shivers every time I play it. (For just one example.) In a year thin on new music that earned more than shrugging appreciation, Gibbons one-note mastery of agonized ecstasy kept me rapt far longer than I ever would have expected.

The Rip [Dailymotion]
Portishead [official site]
80 ’08 (and heartbreak)

  • Anonymous

    The ITunes “most played” feature is a good way to cut through people’s bullshit and see that they really listened to Sisquo’s “thong song” more than Atlas Sound or Fleet Foxes or whatever.

  • Awakeonatrain

    Sorry Jess, there’s a BIG grey area between “sunny” music and the almost fetish-y obsession with sorrow that Portishead portrays on Third. A once multi-faceted and great band has become impenetrably boring.

  • Awakeonatrain

    And personally, I’m kind of against a band using depression as a fashion statement. Yes, I’m someone who finds The Cure’s Pornography and the like a bit laughable.

  • Michaelangelo Matos

    Fashion statement? WTF? It’s their subject.

  • Ned Raggett

    @Awakeonatrain: I can’t take her sad girl posing seriously

    Damn, and here I was about to use similar words about you.

  • Jess Harvell

    ladies you’re ALL pretty.

  • Anonymous

    Beth is beautiful.

  • SomeSound-MostlyFury

    @Awakeonatrain: Kanye, Billy Ray Cyrus, the vast majority of early Country-western artists, every emo band ever, and the entire conglomeration of artists whose work is labeled as “The Blues” would like to tell you about their legions of fans who don’t find sorrow boring or impenetrable.
    Its like criticizing punk for using raucous anger as a “fashion statement.”

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Awakeonatrain: Laughable? So who strikes the perfect balance for you? How in the hell is it a fashion statement? I can’t think of a band less concerned with what’s fashionable than Portishead.

  • Awakeonatrain

    @Lucas Jensen: Oh please. Beth Gibbons and company have quite a respectable standing in the rock world and likely in their social circles back in their home town and cities for their work and careers. I can’t take her sad girl posing seriously, and thus, why Third failed for me as a listener. So yes, laughable. Their other albums had dimension and other modes besides “sad” and “glum.” In another band’s hands, this album would be considered self-parody, but because it’s Portishead, pushing their glumness into caricature is considered the next step in their evolution. I just think everyone praising this work has been fooled by these three.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Awakeonatrain: Self-parody? Are you serious? I could suggest that the album’s chilly exterior is symptomatic of our relatively crappy times, but mainly I will suggest that your talk of “other bands’ hands” is the kind of hypothetical argument that gets my goat. You can make all sorts of wacky arguments when you suggest that something would be perceived different if another band did it. DUH.

    And if the band was concerned with its social standing they wouldn’t have waited forever to put out a record. Because they are respected they are fashion-conscious? That’s laughable.

    @Ned Raggett: Amen.

  • Anonymous

    I loved Third on release and still do today…Portishead decided that it would make itself a dark psychedelic record and for that I am eternally grateful….
    did anyone notice that they totally cribbed from the Silver Apples on one song though?
    Now where is Beth’s second record? That first one was FANTASTIC!!!! (I have it on vinyl…had to pay a very big premium for that too!)