Does Portishead really need an introduction? After a ten year hiatus, their third album was probably the most highly anticipated release of 2008. They’re credited if not with the downright invention, than at least the popularization of the trip-hop genre, even though they’re reluctant to accept that label for their music. Beth Gibbons has one of the most remarkable and instantly recognizable voices in the music industry and is the closest example the past twenty years have had of a true lady, in the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone sense. Their second, self-titled album is one of the most interesting, enthralling collections of songs I’ve ever heard, so here it is, my star-struck, mesmerized interval of gushing at Portishead’s magnificence.
I associate this album with a Romanian novel, written by Mircea Eliade, known abroad mostly for his studies on the history of religion. The novel’s translation in English is “The Forbidden Forest”, based on the French edition, since the original, Romanian title would make absolutely no sense anywhere else but here, because it references an ancient, pagan holiday when the heavens open and all manner of supernatural events may happen, from wishes being granted to slipping through the fabric of reality and time and losing yourself in the ebb and flow of the spiritual abyss bubbling under and over our thin layer of perception. The book isn’t quite as dramatic as the holiday it alludes to, but this music is. I suppose that’s why I can’t dissociate the two – this album gave a whole new depth to the book, painted the words in colors so intense and so mystique that I can’t think of it in any other way. I would sit on the balcony in summer and watch the clouds roll by at sunset, in reading intermissions, listening to this album, right on the night of that pagan holiday, and the truly magical feeling charging the air was literally unforgettable.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a paradox, but the album itself isn’t at all lofty and phantasmagorical, staying firmly planted in reality, at least when it comes to references and lyrical themes. What I mean to say is that, while there are artists who make a conscious effort to create a mystical mood, that’s not Portishead’s cup of tea. However, what happens is that Beth Gibbon’s voice and lyrics treat instantly recognizable emotions and turmoil with a depth and sensibility which somehow upgrades them to a level of intensity surpassing (at least my) experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this music is larger than life. Their aesthetic is highly referential towards film scores and imagery, so it’s not surprising that the album should have this silver screen quality, but what is surprising is the overwhelming way the band actually pulls off this style, as to still be completely unmatched.
Beth Gibbon’s voice, precise and articulate, marked by a sort of disappointed dryness, collates splendidly over Geoff Barrow’s guitar work and Adrian Utley’s claustrophobic, eerie beats and samples, creating an overall feeling of ominous, dark, draining substance, as if the album itself could exert a sort of emotional gravitational pull. I’ve rarely heard music so tremendously dense, with such fierce intensity, right as it’s kept under the pressure-cooker lid of Beth Gibbon’s seemingly apathetic and barren style of delivery. That’s why she reminds me so much of Billie Holiday – I feel the same simplicity, the same succinct mode of singing – raw under the subtle veneer of elegance and refinement, almost like the memory of a wound on a well-healed stretch of skin.
I’m not a huge fan of Portishead’s third album, it seems to me like the outstanding chemistry between the instrumental part and the vocals isn’t quite there, which is why I chose their second album to talk about instead. Truth be told, if I hadn’t felt like it would’ve been cheating, I’d have talked about their live album, Roseland NYC, because of the added drama and depth which the string orchestra brings to these songs. In any case, I can definitely recommend all of their albums, even though I don’t get the same thrill from Third as I do from the others. Their morose, meditative style is simply unique, and I believe it merits all the attention it can possibly get. There’s also a bit of an extra perk to this album – the video for the song Over is still, after years and years, my favorite music video, so I’m very pleased to be able to embed it here. Enjoy!