Third Time’s a Paranoid Masterpiece

Most reviews of Portishead’s upcoming and now leaked Third will lead with we’ve waited ten years for this or some such lazy claptrap. Many will be written by those too young to know pain, or waiting, or the pain of waiting.

They’ll be only partially right, since we’ve been waiting for this album for 14 years, not ten. Portishead’s self-titled sophomore release of 1998 paled against Dummy, their genre-defining debut. Dummy’s lead single “Sour Times” (first heard while driving across the M Street bridge in DC, thinking, this could be PJ Harvey, but isn’t) was spellbinding enough to take trip hop big time; not entirely a good thing, because all we got were lousy t-shirts like Morcheeba, Olive, or Sneaker Pimps.

Sure, trip hop albums better than Dummy exist. Tricky’s debut comes to mind. The Cocteau Twins’ Treasure doesn’t get the trip-hop categorization, but should. Harvey’s Is This Desire? is a great trip hop album, complete with Planet of the Apes soundtrack samples. The genre’s inventor, Massive Attack, notched a good one or two.

Good news: Third is Portishead’s best album, certainly in comparison to one and two. It isn’t an easy listen, either. From the choking, atonal horn solo cutting into “Magic Doors” to the Silver Apples homage scarred by electric guitar in “We Carry On,” Third shucks previous Portishead convention wholesale; a trend established by the leadoff track’s claustrophobic cluster of stuttering breaks, pealing violins, and a counter-melodic vocal breakdown. Beth Gibbons always risked neurasthenia, but here, she’s at once pained and strategically fading at times, or almost begging; “Nylon Smile” boosts her so far above a Martin Denny-gone-nightmare mix that I worried I was the one who’d spited her — or attracted her, either of which would be bad, judging how beautiful her self-doubt sounds. Thus far, she gets my vote for vocal performance of 2008.

There are some lyric gaffs – we don’t need to hear about “white horses” outside of Stevie Nicks songs, thank you. But that’s a small complaint considering Portishead cotninues to use a Theremin, analog synths, and live instruments sampled with complexity.

I’ll stop here. And I won’t post a track because it’s probably too hot, for now, and might be worth your dollars.