All in the head
Ten years out of the spotlight has only added to the mystique surrounding Portishead. On the eve of a rare live show Mark Robertson explores their appeal
In today’s stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, drop ‘em even quicker music industry where the write-record-release-tour hamster wheel is king, the return of Bristolian trio Portishead back into our lives is a cause for celebration for some and relief for others. Celebration for those who have been waiting just over a decade for more music, and relief for the band, in that they can still do it.
Portishead’s numbers are impressive. Their new album, the numerically aware Third, arrives ten years after their last release, concert album Roseland NYC Live. The 11 songs on their new record brings their total recorded studio output to around 34 songs. That works out at roughly two a year since their formation in 1991. In this case, less is definitely more.
Time however, has not diminished their appeal. What initially fascinated about Portishead continues to intrigue. They make something so desperately sad sound achingly beautiful. Beth Gibbons’ voice sounds so incomprehensibly fragile and Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley’s music taps into niggling, beatific grooves and beats but still sounds cinematic and otherworldly. It is sparse, at times painfully simple, but enormously affecting.
Beth Gibbon’s aversion to the press means that, once again, Messrs Barrow and Utley have been charged with the responsibility of explaining their extended hiatus. What they’ve said so far intimates that a long drawn out series of personal and musical dead ends at the root cause: both Utley and Barrow got divorced and started families in the interim while Beth Gibbons squeezed out an autumnal solo album in 2003. Subsequently, the trio endured sundry stymied writing and recording sessions.
The band curating All Tomorrow’s Parties festival late last year was a first chance to hear new material but also an indication of where their collective heads were at, musically. Barrow has said already that he and Gibbons had reconnected not over hip hop like they did back in 1991 but over experimental drone rockers like Earth and Sunn 0))). There are touches of this kind of influence on Third; it is Portishead grown-up, the familiar structures given life by surprising new timbres and tones. Barrow has also claimed electronica as a defining influence, an assertion that’s borne out in the judder of lead single ‘Machine Gun’. It informs the record just as hip hop did their debut. They still rumble with the same funereal pace, but musically, Third is infused with a decade’s worth of influences.
The band’s slothly work rate, infrequent live shows, distaste for interviews and general truculence only adds to Portishead’s appeal. We’ve become accustomed to knowing everything from inside leg measurements to the ice-cream flavour preference of our rock stars, so it is refreshing just how little we know about this trio. Aside from Geoff Barrow’s intermittent blog entries – which concerned themselves more with his nascent fury at terrible television shows than any real musical insights – they’ve given us little to go on. But when you hear the songs, you won’t care: the music is enough.
Corn Exchange, Edinburgh, Sat 12 Apr.