It’s been 10 years since the last Portishead release, and expectations are – well, nervous, probably. Ten years, and the fear of disappointment probably outweighs any excitement: after all, this is the band that overturned the nocturnal melancholy of the ’90s, Dummy’s fractured rhythms locking our collective neck muscles into a permanent ache.
Just as their last studio recording closed with a sample, here it opens with one: a spoken word intro in a foreign tongue, conferring an immediate cinematic quality as instruments layer beneath. Then the bassline and drums kick in and it sounds like an old chase movie sparring with the horror genre, guitars chiming as wavering synths strain over the top. Two minutes later and it’s the latter that wins out, the drums dropping away as Beth Gibbons’ voice cuts through, drained and decayed and terrifying, like Miss Havisham with a knife. “Did you know what I lost? Do you know what I wanted?” she mourns, and you’re torn between the impulse to console her or to just run away.
If Silence was despondent, Hunter throbs with menace, droplets of threat shivering to the ground and pooling to form the track’s four minutes and five seconds. It could aptly accompany the Fairy-King’s soirees from Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange, conjuring a twilit realm of corpses and enchantments, Gibbons’ half-whispered entreaties to an anonymous lover reaching us from another place. It fades out. It shouldn’t; the track should go on forever.
By the time Nylon Smile’s insistent rhythms close you’re trapped, locked within this world yourself, unable to tear yourself away yet fearful as to the consequences of staying: half-way through The Rip anything external has ceased to exist. It’s another track that, regrettably, fades out, possibly because the band could find no way to halt the rhythm that they’ve built up by the end.
Plastic, perhaps consequentially, goes the other way, deliberately aborting its own beats before they can breathe. A difficult track, it staggers rather than starts, alternating between jagged loops and spectral verses that veer too close to despair for us to quite shake the feeling of voyeurism. Whilst contextually the track serves as an effective counterpoint to those around it, in isolation it’s like trying to read whilst the train carriages are separating.
We Carry On is a revelation: the heaviest and fastest track Portishead have yet made, it’s built around layers of mechanised riffs and beats that drill their way into your head remorselessly, churning tissue and synapses in their wake. The centrepiece of the album, it’s here that you’ll find the clearest distillation of the band’s ‘new’ sound: the smoky ‘trip-hop’ rhythms of a decade past traded in for an industrial dystopia of insistent, urgent loops, a production line that accentuates the otherness of the wraithish vocals yet further. The effect is almost mathematical, so controlled that when the guitar cuts in it feels as though it’s intruding, an organic element in a sterile world. The track is six and a half minutes: by the end it’ll have riveted itself to your skull.
By now the contrasting nature of this album should be apparent, as each successive track thwarts the expectations set up by the one before it. Deep Water, then, confounds: a single ukulele backing a duet between Gibbons and what sounds like a barbershop quartet of computers. It’s the most stripped-down song on the album, and whilst easily dismissed as a mere filler – just a minute forty in length, it bridges the album’s most dominant tracks – there’s a warmth and humour here that serves to leaven the darkness of the surrounding pieces. The whole thing quivers like a worn cassette, threatening to chew up at any moment.
This being the case, it’s only logical that Machine Gun should be modelled upon a skipping CD. An inspired first single choice, it’s violent and abrasive and utterly unplayable on daytime radio: unremitting slabs of caustic, jarring electronica that exile any last shards of the band’s ‘coffee-table’ association, as well as any chance for an amicable relationship with your neighbours. Yet it still manages to be beautiful, with warm synths heightening the best vocal performance of the album and an outro that makes the headache worth it.
The album’s closing tracks turn the mood more downbeat, Small’s breathy, half-whispered vocals and sparse, melancholy arrangements made all the more lonely after the claustrophobia of the preceding pieces. Echoes of earlier albums surface through the song’s more raucous second half, but, as with the mangled trumpet that punctuates Magic Doors, the effect is more disquieting than nostalgic. That said, the latter is the most ‘traditional’ Portishead song here, warm piano chords carrying the nearest thing to a chorus on offer.
Magic Doors could close the album. That task, however, is given to the minor notes and stormy drum-rolls of Threads, Gibbons’ last stab at a full-blown emotional collapse finally draining away, lost to a rising foghorn that warns – too late – that this is not going to be an easy experience.
Yet far from being miserable, this is a record substantially more alive than its eponymous predecessor. Portishead still sound like no-one else, but more importantly they aren’t just sounding like themselves, either: this is an album that occupies its own space, untethered to any of the musical trapping and quagmires of genre that snare so many other artists. It’s unlikely to sell as many copies as Dummy, perhaps, but its achievement is arguably greater: it makes Portishead relevant again.