Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Portishead - Third Track-by-Track Review

When I’m bored I write track-by-track reviews with no context. This time it's Portishead's Third, a 2008 mind-warping Trip-Hop/Psychedelic Rock record that proved Beth Gibbons and the crew could still shock. Each track is rated .5-5, then tallied and divided by the number of tracks, giving a percentage and a letter grade. That letter isn't entirely indicative of my thoughts on the album as it only takes into account tracks and not the album as a whole.

 1. Silence

Amazing opener. A perfect marriage between Portishead’s classic Trip-Hop and a more traditional Psychedelic Rock, albeit a malformed Psychedelic Rock where endless drum loops and hollow singing engulfs a sinking feeling the track’s title induces. Although I still secretly hate it, the ending just pulls the gut out from you as everything just stops. That’s all it does, it just stops. Not on a note, on a word, on anything, it just cuts off circulation with a rip of the cord. For something so relentlessly pounding, ‘Silence’s’ ending might be the most punishing part. 3.5

2. Hunter

This refined sound is as delicate as it is wild. Just hearing gentle guitars play fiddle with soothing vocals, all while a bruising, extremely low-end bass looms in the background and rickety, uncomfortably mis-formed synths bounce between each other creates a world teetering between dream and nightmare. A world that isn’t revealed to be such until later in the album. For now though, this song doesn’t really offer much besides foreshadowing. Where ‘Silence’ jumped right into the thick, ‘Hunter’ would be more prone to the subtle introduction to the new sound. 2.5

 3. Nylon Smile

Portishead has always been inherently creepy, this title doesn’t negate that in any way, further forcing details into the listeners mind that they care not to know. Gibbons’ searching voice wreaks of frailty, yet the lyrics tell a more forthcoming story. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you, and I don’t know what I’ll do without you” she whimpers as she struggles to find herself while also needing someone else. Her cooing, in unison with the formulaic drums, adds a haunting touch that only adds to the tension before being once again cut off at the end, this time on note at least. 2.5

 4. The Rip

Absolutely fascinating track. Portishead’s closest to Freak Folk the likes of which only early Animal Collective where able to create. While the music video helps with this, the first half of this track really sounds like a trip through an enchanted forest looking for something that’s not there. That first half, while great in its own way, is nothing to its glorious finale that sees Gibbons fleeing, soaring through this land. It’s a transition that’s breathtaking, with her voice escaping in this one-note “oh” before a quickly-gathering synth line steamrolls into the picture. It’s like a euphoric finale in Rock when the guitars freeform into view, but inverted with updated Trip-Hop textures. 4

5. Plastic

That knocking. If that’s knocking, I actually hope it’s not, but it’s eery as all hell. The way it tumbles, only to regain steam with a speed that only two hands repeatedly banging could do. The cacophony of synths during the ‘chorus’ doesn’t help matters, as you begin to feel for Gibbons as she becomes trapped in this two-tone battle. That chorus, besides some fidgets in synths, is largely just noise. Even after dozens of tracks and years in music, I still can’t get over hearing this feeble individual quiver over threatening sonic textures. Without veering into feelings potentially unwanted, I can’t help but think of an abusive relationship when hearing this song, one that Gibbons is afraid to leave. Now that’s when you know music sets a mood. 3

6. We Carry On

It’s similar in style to ‘Silence,’ with parodying drum and synth measures racing against one another. At least here though it’s given time to sink in and breath, as rambunctious guitars join sporadically. I do feel it, like the song says, carries on too long, especially failing to evolve. The beat is pulsating and insistent, but without much density it fails to leave a lasting impact. 2.5

7. Deep Water

Holy shit. 4

8. Machine Gun

Holy shit part 2. 4.5

Okay but in all seriousness, ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Machine Gun’ has to be one of the best song pairings I’ve ever heard. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s exactly that contrast that makes it so striking. As if you had any indication that Third would later turn pleasant or reassuring, ‘Deep Water,’ with its strangely positive vibe and calming ukulele, leading into ‘Machine Gun’ is just like being hit by a train after seeing the end of the tunnel. “Deep waters won’t scare me tonight” Gibbons convinces herself, after saying “gotta remember, don’t fight it, even if I, don’t like it.” It’s all preparatory for an instance of sorrow, violence, and regret. ‘Machine Gun’s’ beat leaves no need for a description, because it’s exactly what it says, a machine gun, in short, rapid bursts firing into the listeners ear, the bass pummeling any need of satisfaction. It’s crazy to think that song becomes even crazier, as Portisthead begins tweaking, manufacturing, and distorting any synth they come across, turning it into a machine gun ready for combat. It’s a startling two-parter that will never be forgotten.

9. Small

After such cataclysmic renderings on ‘Machine Gun,’ ‘Small’ is rightfully small. Gibbons turns her head aggressively towards her companion, retaliating for the first time with a sneer never before seen. Through her subtleties she seems more confident and direct, the forthcoming eruption with wailing guitars and distorted keyboards seems to confirm the suspicions of this character coming out. “Try to understand, but you’re just a man, hoping to score, just like me” she says, I presume, with a sarcastic smile adorning her face. Further elaboration on Psych Rock-doused guitars and processing drums take the track out. 2.5

10. Magic Doors

It’s my least favorite here, although by Portishead standards it still reflects a great song. Gibbons starts with a declarative statement, “I can’t deny what I’ve become, I’m just emotionally undone.” Her understanding, or lack thereof, of her feelings has caused, for the first time, structure in her singing in unison with the beat. This track’s easily Third’s most organically composed, a simple song that leaves little to the imagination. Coming from a song that features poorly played bagpipes that’s saying something, but in reality those bagpipes seem forced in to rear this track to different directions, trying to make it not so stale. It does so in some regards, but still can’t muster intrigue. 2

11. Threads

The closer sees Gibbons and Portishead in general return more to their traditional Trip-Hop roots, in glorious, devastating fashion. Her wailing of “I’m always so unsure” rips through the soul as she’s reached an end, the seams of her character unraveling as the threads begin to come apart. Apart from ‘Deep Water,’ it’s Third’s most minimalistic, with only the chorus drowning Gibbons in that water she was trying to avoid with chaotic drums and snarling guitars creeping up behind her. That’s how things end too, because otherwise the verses are ominously quiet. The ending though, as Gibbons loses control, questioning her reality, is breathtaking in its darkness, with the vocals being drowned out by this gargantuan siren beaming down from the heavens, or up from hell, who knows. 3.5

34.5-55 // 62% // B-

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with all of the grades and some of the comments, but I realize that that's your taste and I appreciate that You took time to write a text like this for my all-time favorite album. I just wanted to note that you made an error in the part on "Magic Doors". You see, there aren't poorly played bagpipes on that track, but an instrument called hurdy-durdy. And just another question> How many times have you listened to the album before you wrote this review?