The collaboration of an unlikely trio of gloomy Brits—sonic wizard Geoff Barrow, jazz guitarist Adrian Utley and hypnotic chanteuse Beth Gibbons—Portishead scored the biggest commercial success of any of the bands to emerge from Northern England in the mid-’90s with the mixture of hip-hop rhythms and psychedelic ambience dubbed “trip-hop,” one of those pointlessly limiting genre constructions so beloved of English rock critics. “Trip hop died on April 29, 2008, in Portishead, North Somerset, England, after a long illness,” an addlepated reviewer recently bemoaned in Salon. “The funeral service has been released in the form of a CD by the band, titled ‘Third.’”
Nonsense. Of course artists as inventive as these or fellow travelers Tricky and Massive Attack have moved on and expanded, just as the Beastie Boys progressed from fighting for your right to party to hanging at “Paul’s Boutique,” and the genre and us are the better for it. Last heard taking a distinct wrong turn on a live album recorded with the New York Philharmonic in 1997, Portishead returns after its decade-long silence with the proper follow-up to “Dummy” (1994) and its self-titled 1997 release, and fans will be happy to hear that it’s still making party music for melancholics. But the band’s sonic palette and its mood have changed considerably.
Gone are the old spaghetti western soundtrack nods; in their place, the warm analog baths of vintage synthesizers at one extreme and beyond-minimalist folk/jazz respites at the other. Together with much more diverse industrial rhythms, it all combines to provide the soundtrack for a much edgier and more urgent kind of dark night of the soul musing: Less languid, Gibbons now also seems less worried about the state of her soul than the plight of our war-torn, environmentally trashed globe.
This does not make for easy listening, but that won’t stop baristas from playing it in their chain outlets—and the music will be all the more powerful for that irony.