Wednesday, September 30, 2009

#92. Portishead - Third (Island, 2008)

Logic dictates that albums made after a decade or so of absence are doomed to fail. Either the style of your genre has moved forward and you haven't or you're simply making a transparent cash grab from the die-hards. It may be slightly unfair to paint all reuniting artists with that brush, but in a lot of cases reunion albums just rub me the wrong way and tend to occupy the lower end of any reuniting band's pantheon of releases. Something odd happened in the late part of the decade though: plenty of reunions actually produced albums that could stand up as their creators' best or near-best work. First it was Dinosaur Jr.'s first album with Lou Barlow since 1988, which not only didn't suck but would probably rank as a top 3 Dino Jr. release for me (apparently this year's Farm is just as good too.) That seemed to indicate a sea change as far as reunions go, as after Beyond became a success beyond (ahem) anyone's expectations all manner of other long dormant artists crawled out with albums that stand among the best stuff they've done ever. The best of this wave is coming up in a couple of weeks, but as far as unexpected successes go it's hard to think of a better one than Portishead's Third.

I was apprehensive about the release of a new Portishead album a full 10 years since their live album and 11 since their last studio release. In the intervening time it became pretty clear to me that trip-hop as a genre really doesn't age well. I tried listening to Dummy a few months before the release of Third and found that it was horribly dated by this point, and while the band moved on from that particular style quite quickly on their self-titled album it still didn't quite set the stage for the new one as well as I'd thought. If they came back like it was still the 90s and their blend of haunting, soulful vocals and claustrophobic hip hop-lite beats was still relevant the album could wind up being little more than a joke, and I didn't want to see that happen to them. On the other hand, their self titled album got better as it aged so there was the potential that they'd move even further in that direction and make an album that felt like part of a logical progression for the band. Even then it was a risky proposition; what would have sounded amazing in 2000 or 2002 (when the initial release date for the third Portishead album was listed for the longest time) might not necessarily work in the context of modern music, or at least not as well as it could have with a bit more timeliness.

Well, needless to say Third went beyond either of those scenarios and did something entirely unprecedented: it moved the band's sound forward to exactly where it needed to be to work as both a logical progression from it's predecessors and an album released in 2008. Third basically strikes the perfect balance between the band's traditional elements - Beth Gibbons' otherworldly vocals carry the whole thing with guitarist Adrian Utley and DJ Geoff Barrow creating an impressively varied field of soundscapes to work her magic over - and a great deal of unexpected infulences (Silver Apples and United States of America) to make something that borders on being timeless. It doesn't sound of any particular time despite carrying the stamp of so many of them. Utley's guitar and Barrow's production call to mind everything from 80s industrial ("We Carry On" and especially "Machine Gun") and 70s art pop ("Small" reminds me ever so slightly of Eno's vocal albums/Roxy Music's pre-Avalon releases) to odd asides like the ukulele based interlude "Deep Water." It's such a multi faceted album that trying to do it justice would take far more space than I want to fill, but suffice it to say that if I re-visit this list a few years down the line I won't be surprised if this rises up quite a bit.

And now we get to the part of the show where I go gaga over Beth Gibbons' voice. Honestly, as much as I hate the cliche, she could be singing the goddamn phone book in Chinese and I'd still be staring at the stereo like it was Christina Hendricks. Her voice is a treasure in any form, and any album that takes advantage of it is worth your time. It's a bit of a shame that she never gets to break out that rich, throaty growl that defined the best moments of the first two albums, but really there's no moments here that feel like they need that sort of a performance. The haunted croon that permeates Third is gorgeous as ever though; every single song gives her an opportunity to send chills down my spine no matter the context. The plaintive 'will I follow?' on "The Rip"? Chills. The chorus of "We Carry On"? Chills even if you don't consider Utley's scrapey guitar tone. The end of "Threads" where multi-tracksed Gibbonses get into a round and give a passable though probably unintentional Dagmar Krause impression? Huge. Fucking. Chills. I'm biased as hell since Gibbons might be my favorite vocalist of all time from a pure technical standpoint, but I don't think any other Portishead album showcases her voice quite this well.

Coming up tomorrow: Two sides of the New York scene at the decade's end, and the biggest surprise of an album from 2009.

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