Posted 06/19/2008 by cal
A good friend of mine once said, after the release of Zooropa, “This isn’t U2. This is another band, with the same members, calling itself U2, but it isn’t U2.”
I wasn’t inclined to agree, but if he said this to me now about Portishead, I might. Portishead’s first album, Dummy, came out as trip-hop was just becoming a movement, but eerie, uncomfortable pop music was already the fad; Kurt Cobain had made it cool to feel sick. Even if it wasn’t the case before, music critics would never give any credit to irony-free positivity again. Maybe what most people remember about Portishead is the spookiness, the unease. Maybe that’s just what people miss about trip hop. But I remember warmth, sexuality, passion—none of which are present on Third.
I don’t want to believe that Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley, and Geoff Barrow set out to create an eclectic, oppressive opus, carefully calculated for critical acclaim, but that’s what the album feels like. In reality, it’s busier and more organic than albums one and two, but effectively, it’s a hollow machine, bereft of humanity. “Deep Water” even features an affected frailty from Gibbons, who has either decided not, or lost the ability, to sing like Beth Gibbons any more. Heaven knows what heartbreak may have befallen her persona to plunge her into the depths of detachment displayed on this album, but clearly, no one has given her a reason to be a woman. “I am emotionally undone,” she sings in “Magic Doors,” and the numbness comes through loud and clear in every track. The playfulness, the longing, the breadth of emotion that was once her hallmark has been swallowed up by destitution of emotion. This vocal transformation could almost pass off as “maturity” if it weren’t for the fact that her moan is so devoid of dynamic. Not until the last track, “Threads,” is fading out does the whine turn to a wail. That might be the saddest moment of an extremely sad album.
Let’s not forget that there’s all kinds of music going on behind Beth, though. “Hunter” comes closest to sounding like old Portishead, with lush, archaic organ tones and percussion, but it’s broken up with angry guitar and frantic synth bleeps that serve to either break the monotony or ruin the mood, depending on how much you dig old Portishead. “Nylon Smile,” meanwhile, features a mere shadow of a beat that does nothing to hide the utter lack of a vocal melody. Oddest of all, though, is “Small,” which sounds just like In Rock-era Deep Purple for most of the song. Could that possibly be what they were going for? Could they possibly not have heard Deep Purple before?
It’s confounding, but none of this makes for a terrible album. The group has created some of its most interesting soundscapes to date, though not its most inspiring. The dearth of emotion creates a sonic desolation rarely heard, and as a producer, Barrow has almost completely deserted the trappings of trip-hop and entered a new realm impossible to categorize concretely. It’s pretty much guaranteed to be totally unlike anything else you’ll hear this year.
Sigh. Does anyone know where I can get an original vinyl pressing of Dummy?