Eleven years after their last studio release, Portishead finally returned to the world of music with their aptly-titled third album, Third. While the cover art might not be the most interesting thing, the album sets itself apart from the rest of the Bristol band's discography as one of the most interesting collections of songs they have ever produced. That isn't to say it is the best--I still have a special place in my heart for Dummy that will be hard to unseat for not only Portishead, but music at large.
If I had to place Third amongst Portishead's other efforts, it would be securely between 1994's Dummy and the band's self-titled album released three years later. It is, perhaps, my love of Dummy that keeps this new release so low on my countdown, but I can't help but compare the two. It was a struggle for me to put these top few positions into order because of just how much I loved each one of the albums that you'll be reading about in the next few days, but in the grand scheme of Portishead's existence, and what music has meant in the past year, I had to relegate Third to fifth place, and it has pained me to do so.
It's not that the album isn't creative--the angular rhythms and almost industrial nature that has replaced their trip-hop origins are something to be admired. If eleven years later, Beth Gibbons and her boys had come back with more of the same, I think the album would have been lower on the countdown, viewed as a rehashing of everything we knew they could do. This is a new direction for the trio, and I hope it is only one of many releases in the years to come. Beth still has it, her smoky, sulty voice cutting through the atmospheric production and machine gun beats like a sexual being all its own. There is no one sexier on tape than Beth Gibbons. It's just strange to hear her voice used as a weapon this time around, instead of the velvet blanket of sensuality I've wrapped myself in since I first heard it. It works, don't get me wrong, it just takes some getting used to. Even listening through the album again as I write this, I find the album growing on me more and more--but still wanting to press Pause, and throw on Dummy.
Perhaps that is the most telling thing I can say about Third. It is great--it's exactly what Portishead needed to do after hanging under the radar for over a decade--but it still falls a little short of what I had hoped for. The singles, "Machine Gun" and "Plastic," are both truly masterpieces in showcasing all that Portishead has become, but can anything really compare to "It Could Be Sweet"? They've set the bar so high, it's tough to leap over. Still, it lands them above my halfway point, miles above hundreds of other releases this year. I only criticize them because I love them so much, and that's the true testament to the quality of their art: even when they're not quite on, they're still a hundred times better than just about everyone else in the world.
Portishead - Machine Gun