I had not previously explored the work of Portishead prior to their recent second coming, so I was a bit unsure of what to expect. When I picked up their new album last week, I was genuinely surprised. Thinking about the gamut of music I have listened to over the last decade, I don’t think I have come across a sound that is quite as bleak and confining –and yet beautiful – as that produced by Portishead on this new album. While I don’t want to put folks off, I am tempted to describe this album as utter depression in musical form.
The first track Silence has a strong and compelling groove and is probably the most up-tempo track on the album. I am sure you could dance to parts of it, but one would have to wonder at what sort of party revellers would gyrate to Beth Gibbons’ pained and cracking wailings. Her voice is truly rare; so fragile and so emotionally expressive. On this album, at least, the emotions Gibbons expresses are almost exclusively negative and oppressive, to the point where it can be honestly hard to listen to. Even still, you will want to listen to it again, because the quality of the music and the production is so accomplished.
The band does occasionally quite strongly recall some of their rainy day peers. The elongated arpeggio that concludes Hunter seems very reminiscent to me of a similar line from Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief – I would have to listen to that album again to put my finger on which track I am thinking of. The thumping beat that kicks off Nylon Smile again sounds like one of the celebrated b-sides released from Radiohead’s Kid A / Amnesiac sessions. The Rip has a bleakly stunning and anthemic transition mid track that recalls the best of bands like Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, albeit with a more concertedly electronic mien. We Carry On and Machine Gun get all dark and industrial, punctuated by pulsing electronic beats. Neither track is recommended if you have a headache.
Penultimate track Magic Doors is one of the album’s standouts, an easy to empathise with lament with a middle-eastern twang. Threads picks up where the previous track left off, with the following somewhat less than uplifting chorus:
I’m worn, tired of my mind
I’m worn out, thinking of why
I’m always so unsure
I am not sure that the places that Portishead takes you are places you want to stay in very long, but I do think they are places worth visiting. Just don’t ruminate.
UPDATE: The Radiohead track I am thinking of is Sail to the Moon. Can anyone else who has heard both tracks confirm I am not losing the plot?