Third (Mercury / Island)
Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, Fri., April 25, 2008
Mid-1990s Britain yielded some questionable pop pap, but Portishead was an exception. Singer Beth Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley, and multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow no doubt spent the last decade trying to shake a short-lived genre (trip-hop) that never really fit them. Smartly, the Bristol trio's first studio album since 1997 is free of the chopped samples and noir soundtracking that trademarked their sound, allowing them to create dissonance more organically. There's always been a spinning paranoia under Portishead's music, uncertainty never far from Gibbons' lyrics, and that hasn't been lost on Third. The unsettling "Hunter" unfurls like something out of a David Lynch movie, Gibbons purring, "My thoughts are taking over." Her matchless voice remains another instrument and now, free of the witchiness that dominated 1997's eponymous sophomore LP, she shines ethereal in the warm synth tide of "The Rip" and "Nylon Smile." The oscillations of Silver Apples are carbon-copied on midalbum standout "We Carry On," and from there, Third really starts droning, if you don't count throwaway banjo ballad "Deep Water." "Machine Gun" is Portishead's most jarring song yet, a stream of rapid-fire drum beats that smells like Germany 1981, and a psych-rock influence weaves into "Small," which rides a killer organ line and allows them to jam. Closer "Threads" brings it back to Portishead's old gloom and doom, Gibbons wailing, "I'm always so unsure," over fuzzy, foreboding riffage. Ten years later, they've managed to capture our paranoid times and sound transcendent as well.