Portishead Third (mercury/island)

Have you heard the one about the forthcoming Thom Yorke-Beth Gibbons collaboration? Tentatively titled “Hush,” it’s an album of lullabies for children. The FDA has announced plans to label it a dangerous depressant, and if it’s released, the Michigan DA’s office intends to prosecute the pair under the same statutes as Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Record company reps have vowed to fight all charges, citing a statistically tiny incidence of suicide among test audiences, but admit that Yorke and Gibbons did record their tracks in separate locations, “just to be on the safe side,” and then only after anxious bandmates had taken out life insurance policies on them.

Though I somehow doubt it’d ever happen (think two bubble babies trying to dance) a ‘Head to ‘Head project would be a pretty logical development. Yorke and Gibbons both came up in the post-Nirvana era, reluctant divas ensconced as firsts among equals, and as masters of electronica-tinged dirgery they’re probably unmatched except by each other. But if both wander haunted dreamscapes, you get the sense Yorke was abandoned in his as a boy and gets occasional paroles to sunnier climes. Gibbons has clearly been stranded without reprieve for a long, long time.

Listening to the first track on Third, Portishead’s first release in nearly a decade, is like riding along on a sci-fi mission to a derelict outpost in space. You know the type: when you get there, all the crew are turned to dust save one damaged soul, hollowed out by her years alone. “Did you know what I lost?” Gibbons begins. “Do you know what I wanted?”

All things considered, though, she’s held up well since we saw her last: what sounds like enough intervening anguish to produce a Ring-level apparition of psychic malevolence has tempered her fragile sorrow into something sadder but harder, more acutely aching but less likely to break. Cohorts Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, sloughing off the glamorous sheen of the band’s self-titled second album, have adapted with dirtier, smaller, more abrasive music only tangentially connected to the narcotic trip-hop sound they helped define.

There’s been a lot of chatter online about the “sounds likes” having shifted from spy movies to early-80s action and horror, and comparisons to John Carpenter’s soundtracks, especially in the case of the buzzy, hammering “Machine Gun,” are dead on. I hear hints of early Neubauten and Skinny Puppy in the mix, as well as the oft-cited influence of the Silver Apples and even a little Giorgio Moroder. But Third‘s crate digging-meets-musique concrete reminds me more immediately of Amon Tobin’s recent Foley Room, and its jagged Bride of Pinbot textures recall Broadcast’s last album more than anything else.

Mostly, though, Barrow, Utley, and Gibbons have simply delved deeper into their own idiom, finding the lucid quiver in the voluptuous gloom. It’s not as if there aren’t still nods to the lounge-jazz fatalism of their debut, the beloved coffeehouse classic Dummy. “Hunter,” the second track, is a torch song stripped of heat. “The Rip” and “Deep Water,” though bleached and distant, feel like mutant folk. And the psychedelic slow-funk of “Magic Doors” is the ultimate Dear John letter to the whole trip-hop style.

But just as the point of departure from Dummy to Portishead wasn’t “Glory Box” or “Sour Days” so much as the blasted full-body grind of “Wandering Star,” it’s the second record’s glittering, tear-streaked fury and not the degraded-signal grandeur that links Portishead to Third. Which could be a deal breaker for many: the heightened tension of Portishead has made it more admired than listened to, something best saved for a really sunny day (or a really rainy one, depending on your temperament), and Third is even more piercing than that.

As a minimalist distillation of the emotional judo that’s the band’s specialty, however, it’s an undeniable coup. Gibbons and company have graduated to a new sophistication, conveying with tiny gestures and rough stabs what used to take them long builds and whole songs. Opening at a pitch that instantly sends you into low-grade fear and trembling, Third jacks straight into your limbic system, then sets to flipping it through mercilessly precise shades of longing, disappointment, wonder, despair. Simple, muscular juxtapositions of single-note vocal rides, hyperprocessed guitar licks, and future-primitive noise forms trigger neurochemical responses like sonic acupuncture, bending your energy at the turn of a phrase.

Why exactly anyone would subject himself to this treatment, or what it’s supposed to cure, are fair questions. To start there’s the sheer beauty of the music, which lives up to the Byronic bargain Gibbons has struck as an artist. Her embrace of lacerating isolation yields visions terrible yet sublime—it’s the formal gorgeousness of songs like the ghostly, coursing “Nylon Smile” that leads you to open your breast to their knives. And that acceptance provides a sort of ironic solace as well: misery loves knowing it’s not alone in not having company. For those profoundly wandering stars among us—”for whom it is reserved, the blackness of darkness forever,” as the biblical verse goes—this may be the only solace available.v

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