I drew 2010 and 2008 out of Tom’s little bag of years, and knew straight away which year I had to choose an album from; 2010 is one of my favourite recent years for music, with wonderful albums by Four Tet, Owen Pallett, These New Puritans, and Caribou all having serious staying power in my affections, plus excellent records by Luke Abbott, The Knife, Warpaint, Vampire Weekend, Polar Bear, Lindstrøm & Christabelle, Laura Marling, Spoon, and LCD Soundsystem. It felt like a banner year.
2008, on the other hand, sucked so much that I didn’t even bother to make a list of my favourite records at the end of the year. Admittedly I was in a bad place – my career and health were suffering, I wasn’t writing about music regularly for anywhere, and I felt as if the musical support networks I’d had for the previous 7 or 8 years had collapsed somehow. Only perhaps three or four records from 2008 moved me at all, and they all felt tarnished somehow by how little I cared about anything else. Admittedly, in hindsight, this is my ‘fault’ more than it is the fault of ‘music’ – how can one blame music? – but at the time it felt profound and significant, and I wondered if my relationship with music was finished.
So obviously I had to pick something from 2008. Portishead it is.
Third is a record I admire much, much more than I love. It’s difficult to love; it’s difficult to bloody listen to, to be fair; it is an oppressive, intense, desolate affair, a soundtrack to nuclear terror and emotional isolation, a far cry away from the coffee-tabled trip hop of Portishead’s debut album, even if that record is unfairly maligned by association, and far more emotionally intense and bereft than its trendy ubiquity in the 90s would suggest.
It’s actually one of the few records I reviewed back in 2008, and I rolled out pretty much the entire breadth of my descriptive powers in that piece. Rather than smoky cinematic jazz, lounge, and hip hop, it draws from industrial music, krautrock, and post-punk, but it’s still just as cinematic as Portishead ever were, but it’s soundtracking a very different kind of film to Dummy.
Third is also mixed and mastered with oppressive volume and lack of space; there’s no air to breath and no room to move, but far from being a dunderheaded move to get on the radio (and remember hearing “Machine Gun” on the radio; fuck!) this is an artistic, aesthetic decision to pummel the listener quite deliberately. It works. I seldom listen to Third, but when I do I get to the end feeling suffocated, bruised, tortured. It’s an experience rather than a pleasure. In its way, it’s brilliant. It might have been a better choice for Halloween.
Tom Listened: This was a great record club evening for me – four top-notch albums that more than held their own in each other’s company. Third rounded proceedings off brilliantly.
I missed out on Third at the time of release. I heard Machine Gun somewhere and thought it was just too grey and industrial and harsh for me. And it still is in isolation. But it makes much more sense when nestled…that isn’t really the right word, is it?…in amongst the rest of the album.
Now, I’m a sensitive soul and scare easily. I don’t like scary films, or Sunn O))) or looking at the Exeter Record Club’s blog since Halloween and when I was little I was terrified of a picture in my Guinness Book Of Records of a speed skier wearing one of those funny helmets. So much so, that I would have to dare myself to look at it. I was about 15 at the time!
But I really didn’t see what was so difficult about listening to Third. I really liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I thought it was hooky and pretty melodic on the whole – not in a Russ Abbott way, admittedly, but it seemed to me that not far under the noise and the industrial atmosphere, form and light and humanity were readily detectable. In fact, the only thing that put me off rushing out and buying Third straight away were Beth Gibbons vocals. On Dummy they were theatrical. I thought that on Third they seemed (on first acquaintance anyway) a tad hammy. But maybe this would be something I wouldn’t even notice with familiarity as everything else about this record was astonishing.
Rob listened: Even if I didn’t love ‘Third’ as a record, I’d love it for the fact that it exists. In 1994 they were soundtracking sophisticated soirees. By 2008 they were doing… this. We can only pray that this album was picked up by hundreds, no let’s allow ourselves thousands, of people with their weekly supermarket shop and slipped out of its rounded jewel case in the same dinner party setting to horrified recipients. It would be up there with the great fan-alienating albums were it not for the fact that most of their casual fans had, presumably, moved on. (Actually, this is a slack point to make – ‘Third’ seems to have been pretty much their most successful album in terms of global chart positions). It would be up there with ‘Kid A’ as one of the highest profile left-turns, were it not for the fact that for Portishead ‘Third’ was a natural evolution, consistent with the work Barrow, Gibbons and Utley has been doing, a compelling synthesis of the sounds they made over their first two records, and the sounds that influenced them to make them. No matter if it misses these debatable marks, it’s up there anyway because it’s one of the most bracing and brilliant albums of the last ten years.
Graham listened: When, like many others, I rushed to hear what this sounded like on release, I was stunned. I remember seeing them perform ‘Machine Gun’ on Jools Holland and thought WTF? I was even prepared to consider that tape machines/backing tracks weren’t working when they did the performance. It feels like an album that should be kept in a locked draw but will still keep you awake by rattling and growling at the back of the cupboard. It was great to sit and listen properly as ‘MG’ just alienated me from the whole album and I never really went back to give it time. I still think it is a record that needs to be used cautiously.