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Portishead’s Third begins with this opening warning in Portugese: be alert for the rule of threes. This of course being the three-piece band’s third album, called Third, with a big number three on the cover.
A train like beat begins, with haunting, sustained keyboards notes and pounding percussion adding to its momentum. An electric guitar string repeats before it dissipates brilliantly into the ever loudening tension. Then silence.
Enter singer Beth Gibbons, returning after eleven years away [apart from the 2002 album she did with Rustin Man]. Her voice is incredible and full of emotion. There is a sadness to it, of someone who has experienced real pain.
‘Wounded and afraid’ she slowly cries, ‘wandered out of reach, too far to speak, drifting unable.’
Gone is the jazzy swagger of Western Eyes, the last track of the previous album. Her new voice contains a frailty and vulnerability, the melancholy of age.
It’s the perfect opener for the album. This is a dark record, with a tension running throughout. Never happy or relaxed, the listener is always on edge. The percussion is just a little harsher than you expect. It is textured with scratches, echoes and sinister chords. Lyrically there are themes of self doubt, a lack of confidence and feeling pressure, with titles like Deep Water, Hunter and Machine Gun.
The Rip stands out as the highlight of the record. Gibbons sings gently over a circling acoustic guitar, her ghostly lyrics truly beautiful in the softest song of the album. Half way through she asks ‘will I follow?’, but the final syllable hangs as a simple keyboard line and drum beat enter, transforming the song into something more danceable.
There are plenty of other great songs on this amazing record. The ‘boom, thwack, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch’ of Machine Gun is powerfully intense, emphasised by the contrasting interlude Deep Water that precedes it. The drum intro to Magic Doors is fabulous. We Carry On has an almost techno beat that drives the song forward with great momentum, mirroring the lyrics, and a good old guitar solo in the middle to rock out to.
This really is a wonderful album. It is deeper, darker and more serious than their previous works – no more of that trip hop scratching. The sequencing is strong and there is a great balance of long dramatic songs and little acoustic ones. Musically it sits somewhere between rock, psychedelia and electronic with elements of dance and jazz thrown in and Beth Gibbons’ amazing voice as beautiful as ever.