Sound — 9
After 11 years, trip-hop's beloved Portishead has returned with Third, an album that at times is a huge departure from what the trio has done in the past. There is still plenty of the trademark trip-hop sound that initially made Portishead famous back in the early 1990s, but it goes to a much further extreme. You get a little bit of industrial rock, some acoustic-focused tracks, and a touch of jazz. Experimentation is big on Third, and the band made the gutsy move of selecting the most unusual track on the album to be their first single. The opening track Silence on the new album is classic Portishead, with cool beats against Beth Gibbons' even cooler vocals. There are plenty of samples and it could essentially have been a good fit for either the Dummy or the self-titled album. But then things slowly but surely start taking some new turns. Hunter does feature some prominent synth work, but it still feels more like a moody jazz tune. The Rip goes even further by stripping the song down to basically just vocals and an acoustic for the good part of it. There is some synth and percussion that enter into it about halfway through, but the song is pretty indicative of the rest of the album through it's raw, stripped-down quality. Machine Gun, the most unlikely radio hit of the bunch, is actually the first single off the album. There is basically one main sample used throughout the song, and it sounds more akin to a raw industrial rock sample than the band's usual polished, trip-hop beats. Very little actually happens during the song, but it's still pretty hypnotizing. In fact, it feels more like it could fit really well in a cinematic setting -- preferably one with an eerie theme to it. I will be really curious to see if this single takes off because it truly is an anti-single. Portishead fans will still be satisfied by most of the content on Third, particularly the tracks Small and Plastic, which do have the band's classic sound. They have a strong atmospheric quality and are among some of the more layered songs in terms of instrumentation. But the album is definitely more of a diverse mix of styles than ever before, and it's a credit to the band for branching out in new musical directions.
Lyrics — 9
The lyrics often tend to reflect what is going on musically on most Portishead albums, and Third carries on in that tradition. There is that underlying sad-and-lonely feel to most of the tracks musically speaking, and lyrically you get introspective, confused, and often heartbroken themes. Gibbons' vocal delivery sounds so haunting that every word is usually completely convincing. The words are rarely cheery and bright, but I imagine that most Portishead fans probably thrive on the band's moodiness.
Overall Impression — 9
Portishead was already an experimental band, but Third is the gutsiest material they've released in their 15-plus years as a band. For trip-hop purists, it might actually stray too far away from the ambient sound they have come to know and expect. Machine Gun is a pretty wild choice for a first single, and it might not be embraced by the general public. That's probably almost a certainty, given the combination of industrial sampling monotony and sparse instrumentation. It still is a fascinating little tune, even though it might not be the strongest track. For all of the musical stylings on Third, Portishead still excels in trippy, atmospheric soundscapes, and listeners still get a good helping of that genre on the album.