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Review: Portishead Third

On relistening to Portishead's austere back-catalogue, Dummy and Portishead, one realises they aren't what one thought they were, at the time. They're now as dated as the scratched, tinny recordings they themselves sampled - a part of that 90s decade that liked acid jazz and all manner of trip-hop styling. Dated, but in the way a classic Bogart film is: noirish, of a moment - but also definitive within that sociocultural period. Portishead is as much a sound of the 90s as Nirvana, in precisely the other way: mannered, mediated, Brechtian, eerie - but similar to Cobain because also anguished, emotive, and linked obliquely to a past pop terrain as filtered through Scott Walker and Ballard.

Joy Division was known to be influenced by Ballard, too. I sometimes think Ballard, and K. Dick are the two major novelists, post-Orwell, to shape contemporary culture. Anyway, if the first two Portishead albums were quasi-dystopian, and quasi-Bondian (Fleming is a third key writer for our times, cold war sex), this Third is more so. Critics who suggest it isn't like the other two are victims of a K. Dick memory wipe. It's like the first two like WW3 will be like WW1 and WW2, but more so: extreme. Much has been made of it being bleak, industrial, alienating, and experimental - as if that ever stopped anyone. Music's been made that way in England at least since 1976. Indeed, some of these songs sound like they're from Kurt Weill via Joy Division, via Monty Norman, which makes sense. German Expressionism and Marxism have shaped UK music more than most would care to admit. The Brits just add cool guitars and better vocals.

The four best tracks, spaced across the album, are "Silence", "We Carry On" (a real cool anthem), "Machine Gun" (with its rebarbitive sonic rat-a-tat), and the ominous, strange, "Threads" - which is most in the espionage vein, but as if designed by Stockhausen, or maybe the vaunted Delia Derbyshire. The ending is like a buoy in a mid-Lowell Atlantic gale, a cold far-flung lostness in it. Someone should do a PhD on artifice in British culture, from Derbyshire to Forrest-Thomson - between them those two women did more than anyone else to secure an alternative cultural product. Anyway, the end is uncanny, and Third ends on a deep scary primitive twang, or a ship off the coast of The Heart of Darkness booming its foghorn into the madness, as if some primitive tribe had a midi sampler and were willing to use it.

This is one of the most challenging, artfully conceived comebacks in modern pop music history - thrilling, difficult-listening, oddly-exciting, and is one of the three best albums of the first half of 2008, no doubt.
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