The weepy white girls who relentlessly spun Portishead's two '90s studio albums may find little on Third that recalls the existential meltdowns they had during their collegiate days. There's no spy-movie danger, there's no filigreed trip-hop beats, no faux-Billie Holiday vocals... there's no beauty. Instead, there's just raw dread, crackly production, and the sound of a vocalist struggling to get up off the carpet long enough to sing her lines. In other words, Portishead has done the impossible: It's returned after a decade's absence with a record that simultaneously obliterates its legacy while making some of the wildest emo songs imaginable. Instead of looking to John Barry for sonic inspiration, Geoff Barrow has dug up his Silver Apples records ("We Carry On"), his Kraftwerk bootlegs ("Silence"), and a raft of nastily distorted samples (everything else) and — along with Adrian Utley's distinctive post-jazz guitar work — concocted a sparse and decidedly unglamorous soundtrack for Beth Gibbons to warble over. Gibbons' voice is still a questionable thing: If a monochromatic singer can be capable of dynamic expression, she is the one to prove the argument. It's extremely telling that, rather than a gentle number like "Hunter" — the album's most traditional, Portishead-sounding cut — the group decided to release "Machine Gun" as Third's debut single. From its glitchy, distorted drum machine and oppressive samples to its insistent refusal to incorporate any sort of melodic structure, "Machine Gun" defiantly draws a bright line between Portishead's past and Portishead's present. It's a strong statement of intent that goes a long way to explaining how remarkable this new album truly is.
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