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Portishead Masters Audio Glue on 'Third' Album

Portishead's latest album is <em>Third</em>.
Portishead's latest album is Third.

Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow formed the seminal trip-hop band Portishead in 1991, merging torch-song tenderness with James Bond-theme grandeur and hip-hop production. After two wildly influential CDs — Dummy and Portishead — they took a break from recording that lasted far longer than fans expected.

On April 29, Portishead will release its first album in more than 10 years. It's simply titled, Third.

When host Andrea Seabrook asked band members Geoff Barrow and drummer Adrian Utley why Portishead called it quits after making such innovative music in the '90s, the answer was simple: The band had burned out.

Utley says, "We'd done so many things, we toured so much, been working on our albums. We were pretty much burned out. Our family and our home-life was pretty much in meltdown at that time. We needed to take some time out, so that's what we did."

Portishead never really had the sense that it had split up, only that recording and touring weren't going to be part of its life until the members felt they really had something to say. Four years ago, the band finally decided it was time to go back into the studio.

Breaking Free

Ten years has done much to change Portishead, but standard conventions of music, like melody, still challenge its process.

"I think there's a lot of melody in what we do," Utley says. "It's just not in the standard pop format. I think that's what we've always tried to do: to break free and stay within a genre but experiment. Especially on this record we've extended the dissonant angle."

With so many advances in technology, it's easy for an artist to clean up any mistakes recorded in the studio. But Portishead was interested in "out-of-tune-ness" and "roughness," and opted to leave sounds in the mix that most would edit out. Still, these are qualities that Portishead has always pursued. Barrow was quick to point out that the unique sounds of Dummy and Portishead were considered strange when they were released, but have been assimilated into pop music culture over the years.

First Experiments

When the band reconvened in 2003, "Magic Doors" was the first song the members considered to be "OK."

"It was kind of one foot in the past and one foot in the future," Utley says.

"Magic Doors" sat on the shelf for three years, and the band picked at it every now and again. Eventually, Portishead came back to it one last time.

"We mastered it onto cassette and back," Utley says. "And that kind of made the glue happen. Audio glue."

"We Carry On" signified the first major change for Portishead. It's dark, but vigorously up-tempo.

"It reflected a new feeling we had," Utley says. "We were listening to bands like Silver Apples and early electronic stuff — things we've always listened to, but somehow that day we played this tune and it was a whole new way of thinking about it."

New Doors for Portishead

Even though the first recorded version of "We Carry On" was lost, the song became a major turning point for the band. In 1998, Barrow admits, they felt like they were up against a sonic wall and had exhausted their possibilities. But now Portishead feels it has opened lots of new doors for the future.

Both Utley and Barrow also praise Gibbons, whose seemingly fragile voice is more than just that.

Utley says, "I think she's asking more questions than being fragile and showing her frustration with modern society."

"She sings about desolation and she means it completely," adds Barrow.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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