Obviously, still calling Portishead “trip hop” in these days of age is as inapplicable as saying Villalobos is “immediate” or Madonna “relevant” (anyway, Morcheeba kind of ruined it for everyone else by turning the genre into the equivalent of a Sunday morning coffee-table book about coffee tables). In fact, nowadays, Portishead does music in a way only one word can describe, a word no one uses anymore but that is the only one I can actually think of right now: alternative. The trio operates in a world of its own, unaffected by the music industry’s rules, a genre’s evolution, life, death, or just the overall passing of time. They are a peculiar proposition for sure, no doubt about it, but a welcomed, if not essential, one in these cynical times of ours.
As a declaration of intentions, calling your comeback single ‘Machine Gun’ should be telling enough. But actually listening to it will floor anyone hoping for another ‘Sour Times’. Strictly composed of a martial and precisely regimented beat pattern reminiscent of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ (probably one of dance music’s most seminal tracks, which shows Portishead always had a sense of humor after all or, at least, a strong sense of musical patronage), Beth Gibbons’ doleful and distinctive vocal performance, and a rather creepy and ghostly synthetic melody added on top, the song has more to do with cold wave’s in-your-face rigidity than Nellee Hooper’s take on luscious and lascivious pop. In other words, it sounds like nothing else out there right now, and it is quite marvelous and rich in its simplicity.
The remainder of the album is strange and compelling. ‘Small’, for instance, starts like a slow lament, but then turns into the type of psychedelic (bad) trip, twirling Moog-spawned bleeps and all, at times perfected by other British bands like Stereolab or Broadcast. But mostly, it is echoing Jefferson Airplane (!), which says a lot about its timelessness. ‘We Carry On’, on the other hand, goes for intransigent Krautrock-inspired metronomic rhythms à la Clinic, hypnotizing you for three whole minutes until a guitar riff The Edge (yes, The Edge) would be proud of brings the track to its climaxing coda. Efdemin it is not.
The rest of the album is not all that fascinatingly fucked up, though. ‘The Rip’ and ‘Deep Water’, for example, are gorgeous and peaceful acoustic guitar-based moments, the former a truly beautiful folk ballad with Gibbons singing about some sort of incommensurable yet obscure loss (what else, really?), the latter a banjo-picking, call-and-response number that could have been recorded by Sufjans Stevens that out-weirds itself by only lasting 90 seconds.
Truth be told, as anyone can now see, Portishead doesn’t do musical genre per se: it only does music. Nothing more, but nothing less either. And how often can you say that about any contemporary producers or so-called artists?
In fact, Third is so dense yet humanely touching, so diverse yet consistent, so remote yet profound, so vaguely cold yet keenly warm it goes beyond any generic conventions and overall expectations. It is as enduring as So Tonight As I Might See and Aphex Twin, as universal as ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’, as emotive as Roy Orbison and Pantha du Prince. Reviewers tend to use the commonplace expression “life affirming” here and there without really weighing their words, but in this case, I can’t think of a more telling and appropriate cliché to describe such a truly genuine work of art.