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For a band (a trio to be precise) whose shadow looms large over the last 20 years of music, I expected a greater output than two albums in 16 years. Portishead didn’t invent Trip-hop, the name given to the early ‘90’s mostly British sound incorporating electronic music with samples (ala hip-hop) and elements of rock, and jazz, but they were perhaps its best ambassadors, best known for the surprise hit “Sour Times.” Portishead’s first albums were post-modern instant classics, albums that sounded like some strange 1960’s outer-space spy film soundtracks sung in a dreary lounge.
Portishead could have stopped after their second album in ’97, and it would have made sense to do so as electronic music has fallen out of favor from its late ’90’s dominance. They already would have been more than footnotes in the history of rock. But Portishead has done something more. Nearly a dozen years after their last album they’ve made the best album of their career and the best album of the year so far.
Third is an expressionistic rock masterpiece. Portishead is no longer content with sounding post-modern, this is post-apocalyptic; a searing, at times assaultive, sounding record that lets us experience beauty in the face of violence, destruction and the guilt and self-loathing of what it takes to survive in a dehumanized and dreary world. Experience is the word. You have to listen to this album all the way through at least once for full effect. Though many of its tracks can stand on their own, as a whole it’s astonishing. Its personal spirituality juxtaposed against its surprisingly minimalist but aggressive soundscape, gave me chills.
With that said this is their least accessible album. It’s difficult and takes patience and the ability to withstand some frontal assaults. The album creates a singular environment, a sort of musical equivalent to the world of a JG Ballard short story. It is disconnected violence, dehumanization, but the vocals, plaintive and quiet, call for salvation, while at the same time anxiously relieved to just be alive.