Articles in the April 13 New York Times and April 21 New Yorker enthusiastically heralding the return of the Bristol group Portishead after ten years away from the mainstream music scene must have had a fair number of readers wondering what all the excitement was about. Even in their mid-1990s prime, Portishead was not exactly a household word in this country, and their uncompromising new record, Third (Mercury $13.98), is unlikely to make them one in 2008.
While the word-drunk online reviews quoted on the Metacritic site amount to “universal acclaim,” they paint a daunting picture. “Never has a pit of despair sounded so inviting,” says one. Another calls Third “a creepy crawly black-and-white-sounding thing” that gets under your skin “and stays there from the first play.” It not only has a “sense of mystery” but “an unknowable soul” that makes it “utterly riveting and endlessly absorbing.” You are also told that this music can cause “your mind to dart in a million dark directions at once.” In his New Yorker piece, titled “Spooky Perfection,” Sasha Frere-Jones admits having low expectations and then finding himself “playing little else for weeks.”
Same here. Portishead’s 1995 debut album, Dummy, evoked a haunting, bluesy night club dream world with odd echoes from unlikely samplings. Third both excites and challenges the imagination. If you find it abrasive and unsparing at first, you can ease into it by way of the fourth track, “The Rip,” which creates the magical dynamic that has been Portishead’s signature from the beginning: Singer Beth Gibbons as the protagonist of a sonic movie or novel. In “The Rip,” she’s aching with “bitterness” for “love lost” until “white horses” take her away. The “white horses” are her band mates Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley and their potent musical arsenal.
Every time I hear Beth Gibbons croon the refrain “Nobody loves me” from “Sour Times” on Dummy, I know what teenage girls in the 1940s must have felt when they swooned to “the Voice,” Frank Sinatra. I’m smitten, undone, seduced, and I’m surely not alone among listeners thinking, “Here I am! Me, Me, I’ll save you, I’ll love you!” (After a pause, she goes on to finish the sentence, “the way you do,” so somebody does.) In a recent Lisbon, Portugal concert, the audience of 4,000 sang the line along with her. There are moments when this country girl from Devon sounds like the most seductive female singer since Billie Holiday and the most purely emotional heartbroken heartbreaker since Judy Garland. She’s sly, she’s erotic, she’s hurting, she needs to be needed; she’s the essence of yearning, and the effect is magnified because the music surrounding and buoying and sometimes embattling her is pure mood, a mixture of film noir soundtracks and triphop moves manipulated by mood makers creating an exotic atmosphere suggestive of everything from Lotte Lenya and Piaf to Ennio Morricone to the gothic teen angst Angelo Badalamenti so poignantly underscored in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. It’s said that director Wim Wenders hung out backstage when Portishead played recently in Berlin. No wonder — this has to be some of the most cinematic music ever performed in a rock context, although Portishead’s Geoff Barrow says he wants his band to be “the opposite of rock ‘n roll.”
Considering how many forms of music have been crammed into that vast, glimmering universe called rock, he might as well say “the opposite of life.” While the new album is definitely not the opposite of life, it’s the sort of music that relates well to dark thoughts, intimations of pain and death, sudden or slow; it’s just the thing to listen to while reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The night may be fair, the bay may be tranquil, the air may be sweet, and the world may seem to lie before you “like a land of dreams,” but “joy,” “love,” “light,” “peace,” “certitude,” and “help for pain” are besieged by “confused alarms” and “ignorant armies,” in this case, machinegun drum riffs, propulsive tape loops of bass lines that can dance as light as laser beams and pound like piledrivers, and the deep, long-drawn-out bellowing of the behemoth of apocalypse that ends the album. Listen with headphones and the last tolling is actually quite magnificent, even beautiful. You can hear it all in Third, beauty and truth caught up but never brought down by “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery.”
And you can hear it in Beth Gibbons’s voice. She can be painful to listen to at times, but her pain is her passion. From all reports she’s pathologically shy. When she sings “I’m always so unsure” in the last song, “Threads,” she’s not faking it. Looking like a cross between Tilda Swinton and a younger Helen Mirren on YouTube clips from the July 1997 Roseland concert, she clutches the microphone with both hands and leans close, coiling herself around it, eyes closed, a cigarette sometimes smoking between her fingers. She’s holding on for dear life, nothing less, and she sings as if her life depended on it. Once, when asked by one of the other musicians why she never does interviews, she reportedly said, “Because that’s what I’m talking about in my lyrics all the time, the inability to communicate.”
The Bristol Mystique
What first made me curious about Portishead was a May 28, 1995 New York Times article about the music scene in Bristol, one of England’s best kept secrets — “the most beautiful city in the British Isles,” says Peter O’Toole, who cut his teeth as an actor with the Bristol Old Vic. Though formed in Bristol, Portishead is named for a nearby coastal town. The Times piece tries to get at the components of the “Bristol sound,” which also includes Massive Attack and Tricky: “Because of its history as a key port in the slave trade, Bristol has a large, long-established black population. This racial mix, combined with a strong bohemian presence, has made the city a fertile environment for genre-bending music.” All that aside, it’s the city’s steep hills and dizzying views that bear out the article’s description of Bristol as “something like an English San Francisco.”
Then there’s the literary mystique, for this is the city of Thomas Chatterton, the “marvelous boy,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived around the corner from Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley’s five-storey Georgian house in the neighborhood still known as Kingsdown. From up there you can imagine Coleridge gazing out over the rooftops of the city to the distant hills he walked with Wordsworth talking over the concept that became “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Ben Thompson’s February 17 London Observer piece about the band’s return to the music scene provides a hint of the storied Bristol atmosphere in Portishead’s home studio, which is on the top floor of Utley’s house: “The vista that unfolds across the long picture window above the giant wooden mixing-desk — a breathtaking view down the slope to Bristol’s … city centre and beyond to the green hills in the distance — would grab the attention of even the most skeptical observer. Whatever the precise explanation for Portishead’s unlikely creative renaissance, it seems probable that the complex relationship between this panoramic backdrop and the essential privacy of the band’s notoriously complicated recording process is going to be somewhere near the heart of it.”
One of the many pleasures in the Roseland NYC Live DVD, still probably the best way to get to know Portishead, is the extra feature, “Road Trip,” a tour of Bristol neighborhoods like Cotham and Clifton, and glories like the Downs and the Victorian suspension bridge that spans the Avon Gorge, all filmed in transit from the group’s minibus. The DVD is also probably, as Sasha Frere-Jones seems to agree, the best thing Portishead has ever done, an amazing blend of tape deck wizardry, inspired singing, and accompaniment by members of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Dummy is available at the library and Third is on order and can be bought at less than list at the Princeton Record Exchange. My hope is that the library will also order Roseland NYC Live.
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