The psychedelic roots of Portishead

Any band that takes ten years to come out with its third album has either dramatically run out of ideas, or has taken its time for very good reasons. After seeing Portishead perform at the Alcatraz in Milan on Sunday night, I am very glad to report that it’s the latter.

I’ve always thought that their music had a peculiar cinematic quality: it would make a haunting soundtrack to a 1950s noir, or a sci-fi flick, or (as my friend Max suggested) one of the better James Bond movies. As they unfurled their rich tapestry of sound the other night, it became clear that they are much more than a trip-hop band from Bristol. They’ve done their homework, so to speak. The same way Bill Viola is no mere video artist, but has become a scholar steeped in his Pontormo, his Wagner and his Zen Buddhism, Portishead have delved into the encyclopedias of our musical heritage, dug out a few distinctive and unrelated sounds that interested them, and remixed them to come up with something that belongs uniquely to Portishead, yet pays homage to those ur-sounds in our collective memory.

Their Milan performance was powerfully “in the flow”, as that of an athlete winning a race, and opened up glimpses into their psychedelic roots. Max said they sounded like the Pink Floyd in the Pompeii period. Pink Floyd, of course, didn’t have a contralto lead singer, and only occasionally collaborated with female vocalists (one would like, though, to hear Beth Gibbons’s cover version of The Great Gig in the Sky, now that I think about it). Texture, complexity and distortion are some of the attributes that link their music to the glorious era of progressive rock.

Their new album, called Third, comes out this month. To read more about its birth (and the band’s instrumentation, including the “lovely old harmonium” elegantly squatting in their studio, bought on eBay for £29), check out this article by Ben Thompson.

2 thoughts on “The psychedelic roots of Portishead

  1. Like many others, 14 years ago I found myself entangled in Portishead’s Dummy. At that time it sounded like nothing else, and it sounded beautiful. Downtempo samples from 60s soundtracks created a warm, enveloping gloom, haunted by a distant, vulnerable voice craving for protection. I was disappointed by their convoluted second release, but I saw that as an accidental misstep by a band growing uncomfortable with its own hype. Last week, after their 11 year hiatus, I got “3”.

    Totally groove-deprived, “3” is the music equivalent of a David Lynch’s movie – a work that many may admire publicly, but few would enjoy privately. Its stark songs yield no entryway even after repeated listenings. Beth’s voice sounds constantly threatened by a hostile soundscape, her range flattened on a claustrophobic timbre. It’s a pit of despair.

    Take “Machine Gun”, first single from “3” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKm-OkHj-VM). The song is a comment to its own title. Portishead place a gun-like drumbeat at its center and wrap Beth’s overanxious voice around it. There’s no room for unexpected twists propelling this raw material beyond its bare pieces; Portishead simply combine unpleasant sounds to make an unpleasant song.

    “3” is intentionally designed to be an uncompromising work of art, too much concerned with its own relevance to reward its listeners. Portishead made this record mainly for themselves and you can’t help feeling like an embarrassing guest at a rarefied party, studiously ignored by the party host. They have no time for balancing their artistic aspirations with accessibility and it’d be pointless to compare them to some obscure bands struggling to strike a honest balance between the two.

    So let’s compare them to Justin Timberlake instead, and go mass market all the way. Take a track from his last year’s CD, “My Love” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpNL344riGw). Producer Timbaland built the entire song around a series of three second angular loops – offering no melody to sing along and no rhythm to dance to. Crafting a song – let alone a decent tune – from such a cumbersome structure is like knitting with a fishing rod. Yet the stiffness of the supporting loops eventually gives way to a sinuous flow – and the song as a whole ends up resembling a cubist canvas, with an organic purpose unexpectedly emerging from repeated, superimposed geometries.

    Admittedly, the rest of Justin’s CD stinks. However “My Love” redeems the entire work by carrying on the best tradition of pop music: bringing art to people. With their bleak elitism, Portishead seem to believe that music can be good only when it’s difficult. With his sparkling hooks, Timbaland manages to show how wrong they are.

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