Portishead’s “Dummy” was one of the defining albums of the 1990s — and one of its most ubiquitous. The band’s producer, Geoff Barrow, made little attempt to conceal his disgust when the record was reduced to providing a soundtrack to fashionable dinner parties and coffee shops throughout the Western hemisphere.
It’s safe to say that there’s little chance of that happening with “Third.” Portishead’s first album in more than a decade makes few attempts to woo listeners back. Gone is the cinematic lushness of old: the textures are more jarring this time, the rhythms stiff and awkward. Lead single “Machine Gun” consists of little but an industrial drum loop and Beth Gibbons’ reverb-soaked vocals — and that’s actually one of the more accessible tracks.
Barrow has spoken about his passion for drone-rockers Sunn O))) and OM in recent interviews, and there’s certainly a heaviness here that was only hinted at before. However, the least convincing moments are when the band comes closest to letting rip — as on the closing track, “Threads,” and the Joy Division motoric of “We Carry On” — and falls just short. Better are songs such as “Plastic,” where a sultry groove is dismembered by abrupt cuts and electronic treatments that could almost pass for latterday Scott Walker. All in all, it’s a gutsy, if not entirely successful, return to the game.