In an April 2008 interview with Pitchfork, Portishead producer Geoff Barrow said, "We really wanted to sound like ourselves but not sound like ourselves. It was always going to be difficult." This statement strikes me as yet another inarticulate rambling by a garden-variety, pseudo-intellect. Reading the interview, I was struck by how utterly ordinary the members of Portishead sound. I had previously cultivated a perception of the band as a savvy collection of Renaissance minds, melding the headiest of musical genres to create Portishead. How dreadfully wrong I may have been.
Looking back, Dummy was and still is deserving of the universal plaudits it received. Portishead, while not as revelatory as Dummy, if only for the fact that it came second, is equally deserving of its countless accolades. These two albums, along with releases by Massive Attack and Tricky, are commonly credited as being the prototypical blueprints of the trip-hop genre. Marked by expertly conceived sampling accented by Beth Gibbons' halting vocals, Portishead have since been widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated acts since debuting in 1994. Portishead's newest effort, Third, represents the first offering from the Bristol trio in 10 years. But was it worth the wait?
No one anticipated the release date of Third with more optimism and excitement than I. And while I hoped for Portishead to raise the lofty bar they established so many years ago, I am left hugely disappointed by what feels like an intentional effort to divorce themselves from the elements which made them so brilliant in the first place, if only for the sake of shrugging off their iconic sound as a means of maintaining their credibility as innovators.
Portishead's music has always been characterized by a level of tension. Whether through composition, lyrics, instrumentation, engineering or a combination of all elements simultaneously, Portishead have always relied on melancholy as a staple of their sound. In spite of the band's cloudy disposition, they have found a more diverse audience than anyone ever expected, from sorority girls to coffee-house misanthropes. All the while, Portishead never straddled pop comfortably and maintained a status as outsiders and innovators.
However, their past music never asked so much of listeners without a payoff. At the height of tension, Portishead's ability to pull back and offer some release has always been among their most sublime strengths. Third has no such release. Tension follows more tension until the listener is expected to accept a premise with no conclusion. For a band so adept at blending the contrast of smoldering sensuality and unnerving dissonance in the past, and for being credited as the touchstone for an entire genre of music, their latest effort represents a disturbing step backwards, rather than any sort of progression from their other releases.
Unfortunately, Portishead have only reinvented themselves and not necessarily for the better. If their initial efforts can be credited with creating a genre, this venture falls painfully short of doing anything beyond changing the group's approach to its own music, rather than acting as the new standard bearer for their trip-hop denizens. Portishead's stark departure from the sensual sound which gained them such a loyal following and nearly universal critical acclaim suggests that, while they desperately wanted to evolve their sound, the end result demonstrates only the ability to crudely deconstruct rather than add depth to their brilliant foundation.