Lets cut straight to what everybody who's shunned the illegal torrent file and is still waiting loyally for the authentic version has been thinking: Has Third been worth the 11 year wait?
Portishead Third album art Well, yes, just about. Third is a great record that, like most of Portishead's back catalogue, takes a dozen listens to before you even begin to enjoy and understand how its beauty, complexity, subtleness and dense layers combine to create a truly mystifying whole.
Don't expect a grand departure or startling re-evaluation that will cause your world to implode. Third is very much still a Portishead record like Dummy and their eponymous follow-up. Portishead have clung to the hallmark sounds that made them uniquely Portishead in the first place: Eerie atmospherics, claustrophobic turns, the haunting & tender vocals of Beth Gibbons, melancholic melodies and paranoid beats set to a cinematic soundscape.
That's not to say that Third simply replicates its predecessors trip-hop sounds, Geoff Barrow recently called it the big brother to Dummy and Portishead and he's right. But as much as it borrows from its siblings, Third also veers off on interesting new tangents and directions.
Traditional Hip-Hop samples and scratching are replaced by stark synths, dance-paced rhythms, piano and folky guitars. Silence and We Carry On initially stand out with their tribal beats, unsettling post-punk guitar figures and merry-go-round synth keys. The psychedelic organ on Small turns the track into a deranged Doors song whilst Deep Water really surprises (and kind of disappoints) with its moon-light basking ukulele and barbershop backing vocals.
Standout tracks are The Rip, Plastic, Machine Gun and Magic Doors, which collectively manage to reinvigorate Portishead's sound. From the beautiful organic-to-synthetic build-up of The Rip, the aggressive and evil electronica of Machine Gun to the exquisitely chopped up drum fills on Plastic. Gibbons puts in a beautiful vocal performance on Magic Doors, the crushed piano chords adding to the artistry and power of her lyrics.Beth Gibbons
These are the songs that earn Portishead a much needed authenticity that will see them through 2008 and beyond. But as good as they are, Third is far from perfect.
There are several occasions (Hunter, Nylon Smile & Threads) where the tracks seem to amble on without the spectacular crescendos or emotive peaks Portishead are so fantastic at constructing. Call it experimental, sub-par, whatever, they simply aren't as good as the rest (well, not after less than 10 listens anyway!) and the album suffers as a result.
All this aside, Third is another fine offering and welcome return from a group who has been sorely missed for over a decade. The NME may say, Portishead are Back! Back! Back! but somehow it seems as if they never went away at all.