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Hate to get all nostalgic here, but we’ve got to hop on Pop’s time machine and take a whiz back to them kindly ’90s, when Portishead first arrived like some new disease, dark and sly and killer. People then were just starting to wrap their heads around what computers could do for them—you used e-mail in 1994, maybe. The technology that powered electronic music was similarly nascent (General Schwarzkopf, meet General MIDI) and similarly irresistible to thousands who might’ve remained record-store clerks forever were it not increasingly easy to sample a beat and lay a synth line over it. And so came a great rush of house and trance and jungle and techno, little fluffy clouds across a liquid sky. Not everyone went to raves in those days, but everyone who did went on to start their own.
Around this time, as growing throngs were shouting “Lager, lager, lager,” a few wallflowers named Portishead were holed up in Bristol, obsessing about spy movies and engineering a sound that both defined this era and stood in stark opposition to it, deigning to ask questions the ravers were too ecstatic to contemplate: “Ooh, can’t anybody see/We’ve got a war to fight/Never found our way/Regardless of what they say.” 1994’s Dummy wasn’t just the best 5 a.m. comedown record ever, it was the voice and the sound of the thing we were all trying to escape as we danced under those full moons, battered by condo-sized subwoofers: our own peculiar blues.
So then, comeback time. They never actually disappeared—just a long, silent hiatus after 1997’s Portishead and a live disc the following year. Meanwhile, ostentatious dance music—Justice, Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem—is once again the talk of the town, and we’re once again at war with Iraq. What’s changed are the weapons, which have gotten better, more precise, more dangerous. The good news for people who love bad news is that Portishead have gotten better, too. Third is a briar-patch of sonics, the songs gnarled and prickly, combining warm, analogue notes with sharp, glitchy, digital ones, like the whirring synths poking through the spindly mica clouds of “We Carry On.” Like post-“Creep” Radiohead, Portishead excel at smattering electronic innovations throughout, like the minimal techno and dubstep elements you hear in the harshly compressed industrial thrum of “Machine Gun” or the nervous, clipped, percussive stabs on “Plastic.” They remain intrepid seekers of audio riches.
But while they were always great at forging sounds (the Rhodes on “Roads” remains second to none), what continues to set this band apart is their ability to make songs, and Third serves up some loo-loos. The most surprising is “Deep Water”: a minute and a half of just singer Beth Gibbons and a ukulele. Go figure. There’s also the aching, psychedelic “Small” and the sinister slow-dance “Hunter.” But the most stunning, the gut-punch on this thing that should get revelers fresh off the Sasha & Digweed set at this year’s Coachella reaching for their Cymbalta, is “The Rip,” a song so good it may have been worth waiting 10 years for. It starts slow—some clumsily plucked guitars, the band’s trusty Theramin—and then Gibbons’s penetrating ghost-voice, which dissolves into its own synthetically sustained note as an analogue arpeggio that’d make Flash Gordon proud, rockets the song up, up, and away, and suddenly we’re scuttling across some of those little fluffy clouds, and down below the verdant sci-fi landscape is full of wild white horses and androids dreaming of electric sheep. “And the tenderness I feel/Will send the dark underneath.” Welcome to your blues in 2008.