There's something to be said for bands growing into their music. The Grateful Dead were young men in the 60s, singing about drinking and hard times, and at some point they grew into this kind of music until it broke your heart to listen to Jerry Garcia sing a ballad. It stopped sounding like snotty youngsters idealizing old bluesmen from the 40s and started sounding like old men who had been through a lot. Similarly, rhe last time the world saw Portishead, they were ten years younger and seemed to be playing at jazz club ambience, 60s film noir, and longing torch songs. Sure, their guitarist Adrian Utley fit in but he was already 40ish, had played in many jazz bands, wore dark sunglasses, and looked mysterious. Seductress Beth Gibbons--who I always picture in my head as sitting on a stool and chain-smoking--and music master Geoff Barrow looked a bit young for the whole thing. Now, though, it would all fit perfectly. The band have been gone for ten years, have presumably been through a lot, and just their sheer absence underscores the feel of their music.
Ironically, then, their 'comeback' album, Third, distances itself from their trademark style. Gone is the soundtrack/filmic feel, the 60s soul/jazz vibe, and the genre defining trip hop-isms. Right when you think they're old enough to authentically fit with that stuff they give you this dark, experimental, and complex electronic album, which brings them fully into the 21st century. They no longer sound like refugees who wish it was the 60s. Now they're down with the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the present. This is downtempo electronic music for all times and seasons.
Who could've predicted that Portishead would really return this year?? Furthermore, who could've predicted that their new album would be so good, so essential?? I mean, for god's sake...a trip hop album in 2008 that is one of the best albums of the year?? You sure you don't mean 1998?? But no, Third is from this year, and it's excellent. Trip hop is vital again. For those about to nod along slowly while sipping scotch and smoking cigarettes, we salute you.
Though a cursory listen to this album will still sound like Portishead, their style has shifted. It's a much more dramatic change from the first two albums than Portishead was from Dummy. No longer does the music feel like it's built on samples or borrowed atmosphere. Third is still based around electronic loops and Beth's stellar vocals but the loops are neither the jazz/soul samples of the first album nor the "live band, recorded to vinyl, and then sampled" style of the second. Third sounds and feels like the least organic of their albums because of it, but it gains a complexity for it.
The music of Third is simultaneously denser and more free than what came before. Take, for example, 'We Carry On', which could be a cover of a Silver Apples song in another lifetime; at some point a guitar solo comes in to lighten the heavy pounding of the drums and organ. The superb 'Machine Gun' recalls vintage Bjork. The beats land like, well, gun shots and explosions, but there's enough silence and space before and after their impact to make the punch that much more impactful. The real treasure of the album, though, is hearing what they have next up their sleeves. There are all sorts of brilliant touches, genuine surprises here and there that make one imagine they spent on a long, long time crafting these songs. 'Magic Doors' has a successfully non-funky cowbell loop and some incredibly dramatic piano chording...and then there's the insane free jazz horn breakdown around the 2:30 mark. 'Deep Water', the album's biggest surprise, is a completely acoustic lament that lets the listener come up for air. And 'Nylon Smile' has a warping psychedelic synthesizer loop and detailed production that reminds me of something Radiohead might've recorded circa Kid A.
If Third wasn't 2008's biggest surprise, I don't know what was. Not only did Portishead release a new album...not only was it good...not only was it arguably their best album yet...it ended up being one of the year's best releases. Though hardcore fans may wish the band would return to their previous style--especially now that they're older and it seems like it would be more 'authentic' now--Third shows that they're capable of other, greater things.