No. 7: Portishead, “Third”

By: Jess Harvell / December 30, 2008

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)