Ten years is a long time in rock. It’s such a long time that it’s possible many NME readers remember the first two albums from Portishead as not what they were, but what they became. In 1994, Britain was in the first flush of Britpop fever but Portishead’s debut, ‘Dummy’, told a quite different story. Spooked, slow-motion hip-hop beamed in from some decaying ballroom, the curdled cry of enigmatic frontwoman Beth Gibbons speaking of themes quite alien to Britpop’s burgeoning confidence: of depression, fragility and paranoia. Somehow, it won the Mercury Prize the following year and, along with Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Protection’, became trip-hop – a byword for the kind of edgy, cool stuff which an off-duty estate agent smoked a spliff to while pretending their life was a spy drama. For Portishead – aka Gibbons, studio wizard Geoff Barrow and guitarist Adrian Utley – this was fucked. They responded by turning up the David Lynch on 1997’s cracked, nightmarish ‘Portishead’ and making a live album backed by the New York Philharmonic. Finally, as if disgusted by what they had wrought, they dropped off the map altogether.
In countless parallel universes, ‘Third’ does not exist. That it does is down to Portishead reinventing themselves from the scorched earth up. Within, auld English folk music sits next to the vintage Dr Who electronics of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, hip-hop-derived drum breaks loosed from the turntable and rolling off towards the distant horizon. It’s adventurous, sometimes dauntingly so – but seldom anything less than compelling.
‘Silence’ commences with a snatch of speech in Brazilian Portuguese and jitters forth on clanking, Krautrock-like rhythms and keening violins – all of which pause to herald the arrival of Beth, who sweeps in like Death him/herself: “Wounded and afraid inside my head”, she croaks, “Falling through changes”. Immediately following is ‘Hunter’, an echoing dreamscape of twinkling percussion, bobbing Tropicalia and gnarled guitar fuzz from the dark side of Walt Disney’s imagination. ‘The Rip’, meanwhile, blurs history with alchemical results: a spare piece of ukulele folk that, midway through, slowly lifts off on a glowing keyboard line, Beth’s voice left pirouetting on a single note. The result is little short of magical.
‘Third’ is a restless sort of spirit, an album that jostles through styles with knuckles white. ‘We Carry On’, a deranged, Clinic-like stomp – thanks to a shared reference point in the shape of ’60s electronic pioneers Silver Apples – sits next to ‘Deep Water’, a cute interlude with backing vocals supplied by a choir of puffy corpses roused from their watery grave. At times, too, it embraces abrasion and discord almost by reflex, with the intention to jar or grate: take lead-off single ‘Machine Gun’, with its mechanical drum motifs, like the opening beat of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ bashed out on scrap metal and wreathed in strange electricity; or ‘Magic Doors’, one of the record’s most anthemic numbers, apparently sabotaged by a gloriously wrong interruption in the shape of a parping, jazzy saxophone.
What’s key here, though, is that ‘Third’ never feels like a patchwork of influences – and that’s thanks to Beth herself. Her voice cold as ice and sharp like a cat’s claw; she’s more than just the band’s mouthpiece, more like the fractured psyche around which everything here revolves. Her lyrics, too, are almost uncomfortably candid. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you/And I don’t know what I’d do without you”, she sings on ‘Nylon Smile’. “I’m always so unsure”, she pleads on the climactic, weighty ‘Threads’ – it’s heavy listening. But complaining ‘Third’ is too weird or too difficult misses the point. Like Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ or Björk’s ‘Homogenic’, Portishead bond strange sounds together with real emotional force, learning to make sense of madness. That ‘Third’ exists at all is impressive. That it’s Portishead’s best album yet is little short of miraculous. It’s almost enough to get you psyched
for ‘Chinese Democracy’.