The music world was quite a different place in 1994. Ace of Base had three Top Ten hits, Kurt Cobain took his own life and Prince still sang about sex. It was back then when Portishead lead singer Beth Gibbons delivered those beloved lines of the loveless from her band’s superb debut Dummy: “Nobody loves me,” she sang on “Sour Times,” the album’s lead single. “Not like you do.”
Fourteen years later, Prince is 50 and mild-mannered as ever, Kurt Cobain is a fading memory and the closest Ace of Base gets to commercial exposure is in, umm, fitness commercials. Portishead, meanwhile, has just released their third disc (Third) — and the lyrical shades of gray aren’t getting any brighter. “I’m worn out,” Gibbons confesses on album closer “Threads”: “Thinking of why I’m always so unsure.” Times changes, evidently; people don’t.
Now 43, Gibbons still leads the world’s most cerebral trip-hop trio with her wavering, ever-paranoid vocals. Hers is one of the most forward-thinking minds in electronic music, albeit bogged down by insecurity and psychological pain — no doubt the impetus behind Portishead’s decade-long break from the music scene after 1997’s eponymous Portishead. But alongside Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley’s collective knack for finding the darkest notes on any keyboard, she’s crafted 50 minutes of intricate, Hitchcockian pop for the Third set: music that would divide a nation quicker than unite it, which makes its recording turf — Berlin — quite fitting. Eerily inventive, Third is faithful to lo-fidelity and exploitive of minor-key harmonies. Put simplest, it’s the sound of being unsound. And it’s the best thing to come from a band that’s never met a critic who actually had something critical to say.
What makes the disc a classic, however, is the way it works as an album. Opener “Silence” introduces one of Portishead’s two styles on the CD: cinematic, psychadelic electronica. There’s a time signature trick, an uncomfortably abrupt ending and a bass line not far removed from that epic, five-note Close Encounters theme — but what makes the track so remarkable is how tight Portishead sounds as a band. Throughout five minutes the trio never loses grip on its central spy riff, content to explore the melodrama in three instruments instead of layering on the synthesizers. There’s even a cowbell, but I’d wager it’s keeping the fever as opposed to curing it — what with lines like Gibbons’ thesis: “Wounded and afraid,” she sings only to clarify. “Inside my head.”
Then comes “Hunter,” and a muted drumhead announces Portishead’s other side — delicate, acoustic balladry. The song itself is an achievement in contextualization, managing to incorporate elements that evoke Black Sabbath (“Iron Man”), Radiohead (“You and Whose Army?”) and even Bjork (check the title) at once. The percussion, meanwhile, is an exercise in coloring outside the lines: Barrow strays subtly from perfect tempo, denying his listener the effortless convenience of a computerized beat. The result is jarring once established, and the band maintains it until the album’s end — regardless of the instruments used to keep time. (Third is primarily a percussive album, as a matter of fact; you’ll hear organic, earthy tones from a gamut of trinkets by its fiftieth minute.)
Drums aside, Beth Gibbons is the wandering star of this show. Her performance has been accurately described as ‘mental’ — meaning both contemplative and borderline unstable — and she manages to tie every song back to the shortcomings of her psyche. There’s brief existentialism (“I don’t know who I’m meant to be/I guess it’s just the person that I am,” a gem from “Magic Doors”) and self-deprecation (“I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you,” from “Nylon Rip”), but few words are wasted on politics or passion. Even a bout of feminism on “Small” (“You’re just a man/Hoping to score…”) ends in personal pity: “…Just like me.” It’s nothing short of amazing how much Gibbons can sing about herself when she doesn’t even know who she is.
Third, however, is twice musically what it is literarily. “Small,” the album’s best, makes an eery switch from cello-assisted escapist music to proggy psychadelia that would make Iron Butterfly blush. First single “Machine Gun,” a seeming slice of socialist realism, rides a reverb-heavy rifle beat all the way to its chilling finale — when two synthesizers duet on forty seconds of Soviet pop. “Nylon Smile” and sister song “Magic Doors,” meanwhile, are composed almost entirely of stray noises, and the latter’s approximation of Eastern funk is a real treat. In truth, nothing here misses: “The Rip” (see below) is pretty as Simon & Garfunkel, macabre as Pink Floyd; “Deep Water” takes a barbershop quartet 20,000 leagues deep; and “Plastic” proves the power of stagnant horns. Even the oddly exuberant, overly-electronic march of “We Carry On” turns into a vicious sonic shark attack midway through. Better yet? It’s original title was “Peaches.”
It’s fitting, then, that Gibbons’ coup de grace arrives atop the crashing electric waves of “Threads”: “Where do I go?” she asks in Third‘s closing minutes. Maybe it’s a rhetorical question, maybe it’s a question whose answer is a question. But for the time being, it’s a whole lot simpler than if Gibbons asked herself “Who am I?” — and, after all, she just spent a whole album doing exactly that. You’ll delight in her efforts.