Friday, May 9, 2008

The Word, 2008

by Simon Reynolds

A confession: my copy of Dummy languishes in a cardboard box in the basement, one of many such boxes in which I keep the music I could never bring myself to get rid of but equally can't imagine ever actively desiring to hear again. Which is odd considering that Portishead's 1994 debut was one of my favourites of that year, but not so odd if you recall the chronic overexposure the album suffered over the ensuing couple of years, as chic-ly depressive background music in countless designer bars, trendy cafes and hair salons. Factor in the swarm of imitators churning out torch-tinged downtempo through the mid-to-late Nineties and you can see why Portishead got sick of themselves. In the almost 11 year gap between their second album (self-titled and essentially a recapitulation of the debut) and Third, the group struggled with the classic dilemma that faces all innovators (see: My Bloody Valentine), how to reinvent yourself (and thereby leave the copyists for dust) while still retaining your essential character.

Third pulls it off handsomely. Rarely resembling trip hop or the Bristol Sound, the sound is rockier, with a grating lo-fi edge (lots of distortion and painstakingly achieved rough edges) that will likely derail its prospects as dinner party ambience. The mood, though, is totally of a piece with Portishead's slim body of work so far. Once again, Beth Gibbons presents a portrait--vocally, melodically, lyrically--of a woman running out of reasons to delay her tryst with the Void. Running out language: again and again across these songs, there are references to an inability to verbalise: "The taste of life/ I can't describe/It's choking out the mind" (from "We Carry On," a title reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on... I'll go on" in The Unnamable) to "Silence" with its "wandered out of reach/too far to speak." The silence here is a despair too deep to be articulated, a blackness that threatens to seep up through the melancholic's speech and eclipse it completely. Hence the halting rhythm of some of Gibbons' melodies, creating a feeling that each line could be the last.

Musically, there's three sets of--on the face of it--incongruous influences that gel successfully on Third. Several songs have a folky quality. I imagine "The Rip" as music for the closing sequence of McCabe and Mrs Miller: Julie Christie's whorehouse madam dragon-chasing away her heartbreak in the Chinaman's opium den, a fancy triggered partly by the song's Leonard Cohen-esque vibe and partly by the line "white horses, they will take me away." With its ukulele strum and barbershop harmonies, "Deep Water" reminded me of Laurel and Hardy's "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine". On "Hunter" Gibbons' vocal has the fetching sadness of Opal's Hope Sandoval, while the song's sound has a faded-with-age quality, like a yellow-mottled silverplate photograph.

At the furthest extreme from this old-timey aura, Third also draws on early hip hop: the crashing drum machine beats of Schoolly D and Mantronix, the era before looped breakbeats and sampling took over rap production. On "Machine Gun", processing and delays make the colossal beat shudder and shimmer even as it stomps; Gibbons entwines her wuthering, peaky-sounding vocal around this imposing pillar of rhythm.

Finally, there's a potent infusion of Krautrock and psychedelia coursing through Third's veins. With its hypnotic organ pulse, cavernously rumbling drums and needling atonal guitar, "We Carry On" finds the interzone between Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and Sonic Youth's Sister. "Nylon Smile" could be a slowed-down loop from "Mother Sky"-era Can," while Small" is almost scholarly in its meticulous simulacrum of the moment when psychedelia turned heavy (Adrian Utley's guitar issuing fabulous reverb-splattery whinges and pings). There's the Cale-droney "Magic Doors" and there's "Threads", whose loping, hobbled beat and glinting guitar resemble Jefferson Airplane's "Today," except with its reborn bliss turned to dead-inside gloom.

Third impacts as an indivisible whole, but if one was obliged to break down its achievement analytically and portion out credit for inventiveness, in first place would come Utley and his guitar, followed very closely by Geoff Barrow's beat-making and mood-shaping, followed very closely by Gibbons as vocalist-melodist. A slightly larger distance behind everybody would be Gibbons as lyricist. It's not that the lyrics aren't good--in their way, they're as chilling an anatomy of crippling uncertainty and alienation as Nico's The Marble Index, riddled with memorable lines ("wounded and afraid/inside my head/fallen through changes", "I'd like to laugh at what you said/but I just can't find a smile"). The words, though, are the only part of Third that has the faintest air of self-parody and deja vu to them. When, on the musically and vocally stunning closer "Threads", Gibbons confesses to being "worn out" and "tired of my mind", you might find yourself seconding that emotion, or recalling people you've known with depressive or self-destructive tendencies who end up exhausting the patience of even their most loyal friends. Overall, though, Third is so good it's got me thinking about venturing into the basement to dig out Dummy.


biwwy said...

>> Overall, though, Third is so good it's got me thinking about venturing into the basement to dig out Dummy.

Mission impossible. Dummy days are gone. Had same feeling - got a copy of it, but brr still 1994 is not 2008.

Jeff said...

Great review - love this album.

One correction, though: Hope Sandoval sang with Mazzy Star, not Opal, where Kendra Smith handled the vocals..

simon reynolds said...

biwwy -- i never made it to the basement. the impulse faded!

jeff -- you're right. i meant to say mazzy star's hope sandoval

Spencer said...

It's too bad Dummy was overexposed. Fortunately for me, I was living in Honduras when it was released and missed all the hype. I do remember hearing about Dummy as a dinner-party staple in UK rags like Select. If nothing else, UK dinner parties sounded a lot cooler than their US counterparts to this American.

For what it's worth, I can still listen to Dummy today without any of the baggage. It holds up surprisingly well. Anyway, I doubt a lot of Americans would find it to be as stigmatized as it apparently is in the UK.