Portishead’s Third Was a Major Comeback for a Major Band

Photo: Mick Hutson/Redferns

Artists can have awful timing when it comes to putting out new work. Regardless of the field, the same conundrum tempts them to blunder. Emerging as a major talent requires a unique style, a sensibility that seamlessly joins inner experience to outer presentation. But that uniqueness, once recognized by an audience, inevitably grows into something both fragile and stifling. A style birthed out of private necessity becomes a public pose, an object of discourse, a commodity. From then on, repeating what comes most naturally means consenting to one’s own reduction. The alternative, taking on another aesthetic, carries its own risks. What feels like an authentic second wind turns out, on review, to be a different artist’s sloppy seconds: You can dodge the trap of ripping yourself off only to find yourself ripping off someone else. Whether self-imposed or external, the pressure to produce turns suffocating, and the only other alternative, silence, feels lethal.

Few acts recognize the terms of this arrangement as well as Portishead. For the past 25 years the Bristol trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley have been making albums that dramatize the paradox of staying new yet original. It was easy, or at least easier, in the beginning: 1994’s Dummy swims in the sea of possibilities that emerge from self-discovery in a private context. Nothing like them had been heard before, and they seemed to know it. Barrow was a sound engineer and producer barely out of his teens: Inspired by hip-hop, and by Public Enemy especially, his percussion tracks strove for turbulence, precision, and density. Utley, a seasoned jazz guitarist 14 years his elder, had studied classical composers closely: his melodic gravity anchored the sonics in a higher register. Finally, there was Gibbons, a self-trained vocalist whose lyrics, while retaining the simplicity natural to song, were closer to poetry in their free-standing, serious tone. A word that frequently recurs on her Dummy lyrics is side: pretending inside, being doubled up inside, realizing why this side belongs to you, taking a look from our side. Her songs about love never overlooked its difficulty, how the barriers of selfishness and silence kept people apart: “But the thoughts we try to deny / Take a toll upon our lives / Struggle on in depths of pride / Tangled up in single lives.”

Emotionally speaking, Dummy was an ordeal. Musically, however, it was soothing even in its moments of menace. Hearing a beautiful voice over tasteful production, easy listeners delved no further; their interest was enough to turn Portishead into a band, and eventually a brand. Posh dinner parties and boutiques played Portishead. The new attention came as a shock, and perhaps a bit of an insult, to the band members. Like a plant releasing noxious chemicals to ward off pests, their second, self-titled 1997 album pushed forward harsher facets of their sound submerged during the first. Gibbons’s lyrics had always been covertly political, but now they were confrontational as well. The melodies went angular and somber. Utley and Barrow performed odd rituals in the pursuit of authenticity: They recorded their compositions on wax, subjected the records to wear and tear, and only then did they sample them. The efforts succeeded, but only to a point. They preserved their integrity, but only at the cost of flexibility; they had refitted their old style instead of arriving at a new one. Their touring culminated in a monumental live album, 1998’s Roseland NYC Live, but it also wore the band members down. Barrow and Utley got divorces; Gibbons fell ill. Everyone was drinking heavily. The only honorable choice remaining was to part ways for a time, and they took it.

Given the circumstances surrounding their disbanding, the safe bet would have been that Portishead would never return; given the track record of bands reunited after a long hiatus, it would have been likely that their new music would be disappointing. Somehow, it turned out otherwise. Once the trio reunited, their ensuing album Third (2008), which turned ten over the weekend, proved to be their most intense and strange creation yet.

The path to Third had been curiously rewarding. Over the break, Barrow had founded Invada, an Australian record label specializing in experimental metal, jazz, and electronic music; Gibbons joined with Rustin Man, the act of Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, to record the folk album Out of Season (2002); Utley supported both endeavors, in the process of throwing himself into as many musical collaborations as possible. Alone and together, the band members were committed to making a clean break from their former aesthetic. Sampled breaks would no longer do: Barrow experienced “a massive state of depression” discovering how hundreds of instrumentals he assembled from samples, though accomplished in their own right, failed to resonate with Gibbons’s voice layered over them. Only after abandoning the too-familiar style Barrow summed up pithily as “Gang Starr with Beth on top” (as well as renegotiating their record contract) could the band produce freely. Utley concurred: “Our trademark sound, once we’ve got it, we want to destroy it and move on to something else.” Weathered acoustic guitars took precedence over polished electric axes; cutting-edge sampling equipment gave way to ancient drum machines and oscillators. The regularity of hip-hop production ceded to music littered, carefully, with disordered intimations. Digital or analog, the textures were immediately, unnervingly palpable.

Gibbons’s lyrics had also radically altered. The allusiveness and symbolism through which her perspectives had been filtered were now stripped away. Her loneliness no longer leaned against the language of Gandhi, the Gospel of Jude, or Otis Redding to express itself. The pensive, arm’s-length wonder that came most naturally to her, expressed in cryptic metaphors (“This ocean will not be grass”) had disappeared. Gone, too, was the inclination toward preacher-like instruction and coded invective, the sermons calling for conscience (“Because we need to / Recognize mistakes”) and jeremiads indicting capitalism (“Subtle lies and a soiled coin / The truth is sold, the deal is done”). Gibbons no longer elaborated; she compressed. Her vocabulary huddled in a narrow circle of the most fundamental words, gaining power by losing reach. Before, the pain she expressed had been wreathed in concerns; now the pain stood out, exposed, entirely on its own. “I struggle with myself / Hoping I might change a little / Hoping I might be / Someone I want to be.”

The conjunction of the voice in anguish and disjointed sonics generated a bizarre contrast. It’s hard to shake the sense that the negative presence that Gibbons’s lyrics strive against has taken tangible form in the disruptive effects — weird skitterings, otherworldly rattles, abrupt bursts of double-time rhythms, the vast repeated groan of a foghorn-like entity — that punctuate them at uneven intervals. What’s at work is a rhythm intent on denying itself, clipping itself off too soon or else rushing out of position suddenly. Tunes that would, in a more settled context, seem plain, colorful, or cheerful take on more ambiguous, shaded, and menacing qualities. The guitar crescendo that concludes “We Carry On” is undeniably triumphant, but the nature of the triumph is unclear: Is it a victory over disorder and exhaustion or have disorder and exhaustion themselves won out? The crucial word in Third is life, and life is rarely in a state of health. We are “tormented inside life,” miss out on life’s best: “Through the glory of life / I was scattered on the floor / Disappointed and sore.” Life has a taste, but it can’t be described; it turns and desires the speaker even as it disables and dooms her. When life is its own negation, the last word goes to something less than human, an animal or machine: The album closes with an unprecedented frenzy of self-excoriation (“Damned one / Tired and worn”), fading out into a long series of indeterminate mechanical blasts.

There is, of course, a name for what follows after life fails to live up to itself. Third isn’t necessarily a depressing album, but there’s no denying that it resonates with depression. Having come down with a respiratory illness that induced a coughing so severe that it amounted to insomnia and with the lack of sleep eating away at my mind, I had lapsed into an episode — my third, weirdly enough — of major depression early in 2011. One night, reeling in bed, I listened to Third. I didn’t know what to expect. My depression had always been of the sort where appreciating art or even just entertainment of any kind was impossible, and my antidepressants had yet to kick in. Yet for some reason the album came through clear — clearer than ever before and ever since. The awe and relief of discovering a language that still applied to me didn’t last, and I didn’t attempt to repeat the experience. But the memory of it, the bare fact of a full emotion in a field of total numbness, hasn’t faded either.

What Third offers, perhaps, is a reminder of a state of being equally negative, but more active, than depression, an ongoing struggle with a beast that has the upper hand — despair, in other words. Or is it convalescence? Consider that, even through injury and fear, with a paralyzed mind and a will without decision, outside of time and language, some element of a depressed person is still fighting the illness that possesses them. If that piece of life, which is necessarily deaf and mute — depression being a sickness of meaning that infects all meaning — somehow touches on a sensibility that reflects its nature and intention (“On / And on / We carry on / But underneath my mind”), it leaps forward into consciousness, though only temporarily. No album can cure depression. But an album designed purely to give voice to the healing factor that labors, quite possibly without ultimate success, against depression’s ravages — that’s rarer than it should be.

You’ve got the surface world — the absolute unreal world that everyone is supposed to live in — and then there are the actual real things that are happening, and then there’s this ginormous layer of media which divides the two.” Barrow’s description of Third’s structure highlights how the album has a broader scope belied by its extreme involution. Though experienced individually, depression is always rooted in general social phenomena such as bigotry and economic stress. Third avoids the occasionally didactic tone of its predecessors, but it still has something to impart: It doesn’t deliver a lesson because it is the lesson. Though undeniably of her own making, Gibbons’s lyrics are popular in the best sense, shaped to embrace a common experience without cheapening it. It’s just that the experience isn’t a pleasant one. Broken by impossible demands of personal realization and deprived of all companionship beyond the most fleeting encounters, the “I” of her songs is recognizably a subject of the self-centered ideologies that drive Western capitalism.

It’s eerie how precisely the rollout for Third, with its narrative of inevitable depression, paralleled the cascading financial collapses that engulfed Western markets and gave rise to the Great Recession: The discovery of the album, for the band’s younger listeners, mapped closely their entry into a dismal economy designed to keep many of them jobless, most of them indebted, and all of them insecure. In this sense, little has changed over ten years: Gibbons’s terse announcement on “We Carry On” that “no place is safe” holds truer than ever in 2018. What sort of world will greet Third at 15, or at 30? Will there even be a world to greet it? It feels like nothing is reliable, but that’s not quite true. It’s a grim state of affairs when the most you can count on, collectively speaking, is a band that perfects the urgency of their original style by urgently dismantling its forms — or else remains silent. Yet the fact that a band with flawless timing like theirs still exists is no small affair — probably, it deserves special respect during the worst of times.

Portishead’s Third Was a Major Comeback for a Major Band