We’re going to do two reviews a week here – one of a new album (less than a year old) and one of an older album. We also thought it’d be cool if our reviews took the form of a discussion, with humor and personality, rather than a dry essay. Our throwback album review this week is of Portishead’s 2008 comeback album Third. Click “continue reading” to check it out.
Portishead are one of the most well-respected bands of the 1990s. They have influenced such important acts as Kanye West and Gorillaz. They formed in Bristol, England, in 1991, naming themselves after a nearby town. Their 1994 debut, Dummy, helped popularize trip-hop as a genre, and is considered a classic by many. Their follow-up album, Portishead, released in 1997, was similarly received. They went on hiatus from 1998 to 2005, and Third came out in 2008. The album was seen as a victorious comeback, and was received as well as both of their previous albums. It became their first US top ten album. They have been touring and performing on a fairly consistent basis since then. Geoff Barrow has said he’s begun working on his portion of their new album, but that “that could mean another fucking 10 years” until its release.
Oscar: Shit, chillin.
Zen: Long as it ain’t like a villain.
Oscar: No. Very altruistic.
Zen: Alright. Enough bullshitting, let’s uhm, be responsible.
Oscar: OK. Overall thoughts?
Zen: Scarier than a motherfucker, and besides that the most interesting Portishead album, in my opinion. You?
Oscar: I liked it about as much as I liked their older stuff. Which is to say, I liked pretty much all of it, but towards the end of the album I want to hear something a bit more different. It starts to become a bit relentless in its slow sadness. But I also agree with you that it’s their most musically interesting.
Zen: That’s how I feel about all their stuff too. But I also almost feel like it’s ridiculous to complain about it being too sad and slow. It’s like going to see a Quentin Tarantino film and complaining about how it was too violent.
Oscar: I’m not complaining that it’s too sad and slow, I’m complaining that it’s ONLY sad and slow. And I definitely complain that Tarantino is ONLY violent.
Zen: Both are fair complaints. I merely mean that for a Tarantino film, or Portishead, you definitely know what you’re signing up for when you begin to watch/listen.
Oscar: Fair. But that doesn’t exempt them from criticism.
Zen: Of course. What were your top picks?
Oscar: Top is “The Rip.”
Oscar: It’s the first real departure for them musically on the album, and I think the song that does it best. The first few tracks are all kind of updated trip-hop – “The Rip” is definitely different. It was surprisingly energetic while remaining morose, and she holds that god damn note for so fucking long it’s beautiful.
Oscar: Number 2 is “Magic Doors.” Another one that broke from their mold enough to satisfy me. The drums felt a lot more organic on that than a lot of others, and the chorus is very powerful, with the piano.
Zen: I dig those sentiments. Plus the freaky sax solo thing that comes straight outta nowhere is fantastic.
Oscar: And of course the crazy sax solo. The whole thing also feels almost eastern European, in a weird way. Like they had listened to some DeVotchKa before going into the studio that day.
Zen: I can see that.
Oscar: Number 3 is “Nylon Smile”
Zen: Good choice.
Oscar: I like the weird loops they have going on in the beat, and the chorus is so utterly wretched it’s perfect. And then at the end when everything drops out except Beth singing… It’s rough.
Zen: Man, believe me, a box of hankies was never out of my grasp during the listening of this album.
Oscar: So what were your top 3?
Zen: Like you, “The Rip” is definitely at the top. Love the way it really breaks away from their usual sound. It also feels very honest.
Oscar: Yeah, it wasn’t as contrived as some of their other stuff felt.
Zen: Yeah. Which may have to do with the song’s seeming simplicity. It wasn’t trying to pummel you over the head ear exploding beats.
Zen: Another thing I loved about “The Rip,” and this goes for their sound as a whole, not just “The Rip,” is that even though they are clearly a very produced band, the organic nature of their music isn’t entirely lost. Especially in Beth’s singing. The way you can hear her intake of breath, the way they leave all her plosives in the take, it creates a great contrast to the soundscape.
Zen: “Small” would by my 2nd.
Zen: All throughout the album they use repetitive rhythms to build this constraining feeling of suffocation and doom. I think it works generally well for them. But I was pleasantly surprised that after being hit in the face with “Machine Gun,” they chose to hit me in the face in a more natural way in the bridge of “Small.” Plus, that organ goes hard
Zen: Small was actually the point in the album at which I started to want something new. It was just relentless after “Machine Gun,” and it felt really oppressive. Which is probably what they’re going for to a degree but I think they would want the feel of the music to be relentless and oppressive, not the listener’s experience of it. But I could definitely be wrong.
Zen: I guess. But I actually enjoyed that aspect of it. I liked that didn’t let me come up for air. And in my opinion, this album was definitely meant as a stamina challenge for their old fans. Oh, and “Small” was also when I felt that the album became tiring. One of the reasons I like that song so much is that at first I was bored of it. Then the organ came in and I was still not feeling it, and then it kept going so long that I went full circle. I was impressed that they managed to make me have that feeling.
Oscar: OK, that’s fair. I guess it’s just a matter of taste. What’s your third?
Zen: I’m with you on “Nylon Smile.” The beat is really interesting, as you said. And the ending, like you said, is just… It leaves your emotions in a ditch drowning in a pool of blood and sadness. And one thing I admire about Portishead is that I never feel the need to bitch about their lyrics being whiny or too one-note. Clearly their themes don’t change much, but it feels to me much more of a choice they’ve chosen to create a mood. I would be curious to see if my feelings on this matter transfer over to Beth’s solo album.
Oscar: Yeah, I definitely want to listen to that. So how about bottom 3?
Zen: Least favorites? “Hunter.” One of Portishead’s great tricks is their use of soft, vaguely pretty sounding music and then BAM, wall of dissonant sound. I felt that this was one of the songs that that trick worked a little less well.
Oscar: I agree with that.
Zen: “Silence.” Very cool song, but compared to the rest of the album’s songs, I felt it lacked focus as far as structure goes.
Oscar: OK. Number 3?
Zen: “Threads.” I felt that sound it was going for had already been accomplished, and done better, on “Plastic.” Your bottoms?
Oscar: “Deep Water.” I just didn’t get the point. Well, I mean, I think I got what they were trying to do but I felt it wasn’t necessary and could have been done much better.
Zen: I would disagree with that choice. While I won’t defend it as far as a song goes, it was one of my favorite musical moments. To sandwich it between destructiveness of “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun” I thought was brilliant. It was the creepiest moment on the album for me. I definitely thought a bunch of little devil children were gonna come kill me during it.
Zen: Plus, I thought it verified that Portishead actually have a sense of humor, which is a question I’m sure several people have wondered
Oscar: Sure. Number 2 is “Machine Gun.”
Zen: Interesting choice.
Oscar: The drums were cool but otherwise the song was pretty unremarkable in my opinion. I couldn’t sing you the melody right now, and I just heard it, like, half an hour ago.
Zen: Fair. Yeah, “Machine Gun” was gonna be one of my bottom picks, even though I think it works in the context of the album. Drums were super dope but only for like the first half of the song. Sidebar, even though we’ve just complained about “Machine Gun,” I still think The Weeknd’s attempt to sample the drums was fucked up and was unimpressive.
Oscar: I agree. Three for me was “Hunter” also, for pretty much the same reasons you gave.
Zen: OK, favorite lyrical and musical moments?
Oscar: I need to think, do you know yours?
Zen: I also need to think. There were a lot of little things I really loved
Oscar: OK, I got one.
Zen: Hit me.
Oscar: Musical moment is the drum loop in “Plastic.”
Zen: Totally a contender for me.
Oscar: Actually, no, it’s “The Rip,” when the drums and synth come in. Definitely. And then lyrical is probably also “The Rip.” “White horses,” etc.
Zen: That’s such a great moment of electronic and human beauty coming together.
Oscar: Yeah. What are yours?
Zen: Lyrically, mine would be on “Small.” When Beth, who is clearly very much a woman, sings “try to understand, that you’re just a man, hoping to score, just like me.” It painted a very dark mental image in my head, which for most of Portishead, is done mainly by the music. That line stuck in my mind.
Oscar: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Zen: Musically it would have to be that goddamn note in “The Rip.” I am unsure if it’s done purely through her singing that note, or through a loop or a synth note taking over it, but no matter what, it’s great. You listen to the song and you hear the note, and then you forget about the note, and then you remember the note and then you’re like JESUS MOTHER OF MARY FUCKS, how is that still happening?
Oscar: Yeah, definitely.
Zen: Overall theme?
Zen: Yeah, I assumed as much but thought I’d ask just for kicks. OK, so the actual question, what’s your score?
Oscar: Because I liked most of it but it got too oppressive by the end, which I didn’t feel was the case with their older stuff.
Zen: That’s fair. I’d give it 8.
Oscar: Why the extra .5?
Zen: Because while you think it got too oppressive, and I agree, I would definitely pick getting too oppressive than becoming bored towards the end. And that has happened to me with their older work.
Zen: And they definitely are one of the coolest production people out there.
Oscar: I agree. Let’s go pack.
BONUS FOR OUR FAITHFUL READERS:
Come back next week for our reviews of Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris, and Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society.