Shortcuts: Portishead—Third

By Ethan Stanislawski

Portishead, one of the better bands to come out of the mid-’90s trip-hop movement, seems to have transformed background music into a legitimate art form. If all elevator music sounded like Portishead, we wouldn’t use the term as a slur. By integrating hip-hop beats with distinctly feminine blues singing and dashes of electronica, Portishead, along with Massive Attack, helped pioneer one of the most distinct musical movements of the last 20 years. Third, the band’s first album since their 1998 live album PNYC, doesn’t deviate from the formula all that much, but its baffling number of twists and turns demonstrates the virtually infinite possibilities trip-hop offers.

To a relatively inattentive, distracted ear, Third is a surprisingly smooth listen. You can study to it and work out to it, and you can sure as hell dance to it—that’s the hip-hop and electronica kicking in. Beth Gibbons’s singing has a variety of influences, including Nico, Nina Simone, and even a fair amount of Madonna. It’s all integrated into the mix so smoothly that you might never notice the almost disturbing quagmire of elements that can be discovered with a deeper listen.

Almost immediately, with the persistent, jagged, but still haunting beats of the opener “Silence,” you sense there’s a lot more going on in Third than you might have thought initially. And there’s no way to anticipate the completely abrupt end to the song just past the five-minute mark. But before you have time to digest it, you get to the jazzier side of the band with “Hunter,” which is also one of the more lyrical tracks on the album.

The rest of the cut is all over the place, full of ideas but also full of bewildering musical choices—whether it’s “We Carry On,” which could have easily appeared in an early ’90s rave or the overwhelming pulsations of the aptly-named “Machine Gun,” one of the most unsettling trip-hop tracks you’re ever likely to hear. The more I listened to the album, the more I wished I could go back to casual background listening—but I found it increasingly difficult to do so. Listen to this album too carefully, and you’re likely to go mad. This entrancing, frustrating quality is a testament to Portishead’s creativity, but it’s also highly dependent on the listener’s willingness to go down the rabbit hole.