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Gray Expectations

Portishead Forgets Everything It Knows About Dread

SOUR TIMING: Portishead returns 11 years after its last album.

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 4/23/2008

That big, gray sucking sound you hear? That's Portishead uncorking its latest--and decidedly least intoxicating--bottle of downer trip-hop: a static-y sample of a Portuguese announcer fading into the eerie maze-chase that is `"Silence." A dank, anxious mood is constructed, bit by queasy bit: Dramatic, gliding strings sing sweetly over mindlessly looping guitar pinpricks, out-of-focus trap-kit rattles, and quick hits of incidental clamor for two full minutes before chanteuse Beth Gibbons finally arrives on the scene. "Tempted in our minds/ tormented in silence/ Wounded and afraid," she begins ever-so-tremulously, as though she's just been sprung from a decade-long imprisonment in the attic cell of some windowless, forgotten tower and yours is the first kindly face she's come across.

If you were down with Bristol, England, trip-hopper Portishead back in the proverbial day, the second of those two phrases will resonate strongly. In the U.K., debut Dummy dropped in 1994, but it hit the United States like a tsunami in late 1995 and early '96; like Belle and Sebastian's The Boy With the Arab Strap a few years hence, the album was a ubiquitous dorm-room staple, a sort of poorly kept open secret. Those mousy art chicks who made their own clothes? That reclusive code geek who could build you a PC in 20 minutes flat? Cynical student newspaper staffers? Scruffy Sonic Youth T-shirt-collecting obsessives? Leggy, airheaded sorority girls? All of those people and more were cranking Dummy during that period, seduced by the hip, drugged cross-pollination of turntabilism, jazz, hip-hop break samples, expressive blues, and Gibbons' husky, intimate paens to loneliness and dissatisfaction--emotions most undergraduates could identify with all too readily.

Portishead's was chilly, gothic soul--the mid-1990s equivalent of dressing from head to toe in black, blasting the Cure (or Depeche Mode or Joy Division), and shutting yourself off away from the rest of the world to wallow in one's own precious self-pity.

1997's Portishead upped the ante, with Gibbons and her co-conspirators--multi-instrumentalists/producers Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley--going for a gloomier, glossier noir approach. Dummy's skeletal depressiveness thickened into a sinister, vinyl-crackling rue that brought to mind a sort of demonic, old Hollywood glamour.

The group took the novel approach of recording horns, guitars, pianos, Moogs, and other instruments, then pressing said parts onto wax and mining them for "samples." With Gibbons' vocals at their most foreboding yet, the noisy, vortexlike Portishead often crossed the line from 3 a.m. dark into outright terror. Take goose flesh-inducing, psychedelic smoothie "Half Day Closing," where Barrow and Utley treat her performance as if it were just another sonic ingredient to be puréed and swirled into their howling production caldron, along with the incessant left-speaker high-hats and the whorled, siren keyboards. Portishead was an easy album to lose yourself in, but the silence that arrived after the last note of "Western Eyes" was just brutal.

Portishead's success as a unit lies in Barrow and Utley's ability to craft pitch-perfect backdrops for the press-shy Gibbons to tiptoe through or hover over suicidal minefields. The just released Third (Mercury)--written during the 11-year interval separating it from Portishead--is an aberration in that regard. The trouble with long-delayed or comeback albums, of course, is that audience expectations build with each passing year and debunked release-date hoax. The finished product, when and if it ever arrives, is bound to be a letdown.

Third feels like an exploratory exercise and a reintroduction rolled into a somewhat flat, frowny package, wrapped in rough burlap. In 2001 or '02 it might have registered as a rudderless junior slump; in 2008, it's just lame. The noir affect is history, the turntable scratches almost completely missing, the relative smoothness a fading memory. And while tracks like "Silence" recall tonally what the trio has done in the past, there's something unusually abrasive about most of these songs. See "Plastic," ridden with a fluttering, rapid-fire knocking effect that distracts from Gibbons' winnowing warble, lilting acoustic melodics, and intermittent, majestic guitar blares that emit synth razor blades. "Machine Gun" hauls out and rides vintage synthesizers that hiss, spit, and sputter like the song's titular namesake.

An overabundance of buzzing, wolfen electronics overwhelms "Hunter" and its crestfallen lyricism--"If I should fall, would you hold me/ or would you pass me by?" From a gentle caress of an intro, "The Rip" burbles into throbbing Krautrock à la Kraftwerk, dry-ice keyboard notes shifting and jerking forth in concert, like robot-driven levers. On "Magic Doors," an opening Emergency Broadcast Center drone chases a clunky, piano-driven vamp into a noise-horn gulch; it's like the worst, most obvious song P.J. Harvey never wrote. It's almost as though Gibbons, Utley, and Barrow set out with the express purpose of trashing everything the public has come to adore about them.

In this coarse context, "Deep Water" sounds almost out of place. Her voice unmolested and breaking, Gibbons steels herself for an apparent suicide attempt: "I'll try not to struggle this time, for I will weather the storm/ Gotta remember, don't fight it/ Even if I don't like it." The song is unusually fragile and spare by Portishead standards; save for indelible banjo and some male backing vocals, Gibbons is out there all by her lonesome.

It's a striking contrast from the rest of Third: the single instance on the album--though the slithery, clopping "Nylon Smile" comes close, in all fairness--where a fingernail-gnawing sense of dread is evoked, where something precious really feels to be at stake. Once upon a time, Portishead made entire albums that effortlessly homed in on and exploited that particular mood--it felt dishonest to think of Dummy or Portishead as anything less than amazing. Third doesn't even attempt to meet the expectations set heretofore, and that's a damn shame.

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