The world has moved on seismically since Portishead released their eponymous second album 11 years ago. During the time that Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow have been out of the limelight, there’s been an explosion in global terrorism, a Prime Minister’s reign has been and passed (and with it the brief optimism of New Labour emphatically quashed), dimwit George W Bush is still the most powerful man on the planet and wars have been instigated in the Middle-East. Yet, while an all too long time coming, ‘Third’ somehow fits in perfectly with these turbulent times. Not a concept record by any stretch of the imagination; instead Gibbons’ intensely human voice and the ominous mechanical clamour of the music perfectly echo the paranoid world climate in which we inescapably live.
Lead single ‘Machine Gun’ could very much be a statement of intent for the album - Beth’s vulnerable, tortured utterances come second to the dominant industrial music, potent and powerful it soon progresses into a Terminator tune-esque apocalyptic vision. However, don’t be misled by this for elsewhere ‘Third’ is less direct and much more raw, often relying on subtle musical tension and the sheer versatile emotion of Gibbons’ voice to hammer home. Opener ‘Silence’ sees Gibbons do what she does best; bare her soul to the audience, while Utley and Barrow deftly layer the brooding cacophony around it - something which is done to devastating effect later on ‘Nylon Smile’ and ‘Small.’ The funeral-paced, striking ‘Hunter’ surprisingly drops the pace further, Gibbons’ voice laden with echo effect and the deep bass growls positively haunting the listener. A standout moment.
The one major critique that could be fired at ‘Third’ is that the album very rarely gives you respite. Whereas ‘Dummy’ and ‘Portishead’, emotionally charged as they were, had moments - often the singles - to lift you out of the deluge of anxiety and tension, such oasis’s are rare here. Centrepieces ‘Plastic’ and ‘We Carry On’ in particular are emotionally gripping, uncompromising and veer on the overpowering; indeed the trio draw you into their fraught world whether you like it or not, making it an intensely difficult listen at times. But criticising Portishead for being melancholy would be like slamming Morrissey for being a lyrical genius or Radiohead for being musically inventive - despite the claustrophobia of it all, this is their forte and where they take us with relish throughout ‘Third.’
The closing, devastatingly brilliant, ‘Threads’ is fine testament to this – following Beth’s breakdown, the voluminous horn sounds at the bookend of the record leaving you with a sense of unease, but strange satisfaction. Another outstanding album, let’s just hope it’s not 11 years until the next one.