In November 2021, as music fans across generations enamored themselves with the new insights of the Beatles docuseries Get Back, a small corner of the internet clamored over the idea of a similarly fly-on-the-wall series about a more mysterious set of Brits. “Three part ‘Get Back’ style making of doc about this album, please,” Twitter user @Clarknova1 tweeted shortly after Get Back’s release, attaching to his tweet the artwork for the Bristol trio Portishead’s third album, aptly titled Third.
A few hundred people favorited the tweet, a couple dozen retweeted it, and one person replied saying there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell. That last reply would mean little—if it hadn’t come from Portishead’s own Geoff Barrow. “It’s nice to have people interested in your work but It’s really quiet [sic] boring,” he added in a later reply, “Just lots of tea and loops going round and round and round.”
Though Barrow might kindly dismiss interest in Third, the album has reached a near-mythical status in the 14 years since its release. For starters, the band has released only two songs after Third, which itself arrived 11 years after Portishead’s bleak, suffocating eponymous sophomore album. There’s also the fact that the band’s debut record, 1994’s Dummy, has appeared on all three editions of the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, moving up nearly 300 spots on the 2020 version. By contrast, that list neglected to include Third, despite The Guardian naming it the 45th best album of the 21st century in 2019.
Where you can hear threads of Dummy in just about any melancholy, downtempo electronic music that’s come afterward, Third’s impact is more subliminal. You’ll rarely find an album that exists in exactly the same sonic world, but the LP has inspired legions of artists to take huge risks that almost always pay off. That’s because Third arrived with sounds previously unheard in Portishead’s catalog yet fully in line with what they were already known for, a simultaneous striking reinvention and refining of their longtime best qualities—the sort of work to which any reasonable artist might strive.
On Third, Barrow and his bandmates—Adrian Utley and Beth Gibbons, both of whom co-produce all Portishead music alongside him, with Gibbons taking vocal duties—combine psychedelia, post-punk, electronic, krautrock, folk, and soundtrack music into an indelible blend of simultaneous motion and stillness. It comes across like sheer terror in musical form, and the ever-reclusive Gibbons’ lyrics are the band’s darkest to date, all delivered in her signature ghostly, solemn tone. It sounds like the rebirth of an already iconic group, simultaneously running from its past and attempting to find itself. Third is Portishead burning its history to a crisp and making music anew from the ashes.
Third begs for infinite replays, but simultaneously keeps its creators mysterious. That enigmatic shroud is one of only a few things about Third that isn’t unprecedented in Portishead’s catalog: The band destroying and rebuilding itself anew is akin to how they created previous album Portishead (by recording music to vinyl, warping the vinyl, and sampling it). For that LP, the trio made an album, then literally ripped it apart and assembled the shreds into an entirely different sonic world. On Third, they go a step further: They discard the skin and muscle of their established sound and make music only from the bones.
It’s primarily Gibbons’ scorched-soul lyrics that loosely connect Third to what came before, albeit only thematically. In the 1990s, she highlighted vague melodramas in her lyrics and sounded like a lover so scorned, her only route toward healing was to either detach from herself or lean fully into her heartbreak. Debut album Dummy’s highlight “Numb” found Gibbons singing, “I’m ever so lost” and “I can’t understand myself anymore”; “I’m aching / At the view,” she sang about the world on Portishead’s climactic “Western Eyes”: “Yes, I’m breaking / At the seams, just like you.”
But just as Third deviates musically from the Portishead of yore, Gibbons diverges toward full-on dissociation, paranoia, and fear. “I’d like to laugh at what you said, but I just can’t find a smile,” she laments on “Nylon Smile,” which sounds like the trio using a skeleton as a xylophone to twist Gibbons’ Joker-esque statement into a macabre nursery rhyme. It may well be the single creepiest thing Gibbons has ever said on tape, but it’s the next line that reveals Third’s central puzzle: “I wonder why I can’t / I struggle with myself.” Her emotions, she reveals, are as labyrinthine as her band’s arrangements.
Similarly, on “Hunter”—the track that actually has nylon strings—Gibbons sings, “So confused / My thoughts are taking over” and, as dive-bombing electric guitars take on a Satanic tone, “I stand on the edge of a broken sky.” She’s ready to fall into the abyss, yet the only sounds resembling motion are arrhythmic synth blips that guide the chorus back to the verses.
On Third, hell means staying still: An overwhelming sense of constriction haunts the album, even at its most propulsive. The verses of “Plastic” sound like an empty metal box falling down a set of stairs a mile away, and although the rattling threatens to blast the song into mayhem, true throttle never arrives. Electro-industrial highlight “Machine Gun” could be a dark dancefloor number if its percussive thwacks didn’t seem to eat themselves like an ouroboros, fizzing out just before they can fully explode. It’s a pressure-cooker of a song where the lid stays on, even during the final two minutes, when the drums become an order of magnitude heftier and the synths decompose into splintered noise. And although the seething guitar bends and power-chord charges of “We Carry On” sound like running for your life in slo-mo from a wildfire tumbling down from the mountains, there’s so much hollowness in the percussive pattern that the guitars never quite reach fist-throwing madness. It’s harrowing and locomotive, but good luck moshing to it.
No descriptions of Third’s songs can quite attest to its unprecedented tones and sounds—it often feels like Portishead is inventing new frequencies out of thin air. That wine-out-of-water quality could well be another reason why Third has maintained a cult-classic status: It’s so out-there that its appeal is inherently limited to a smaller crowd than the substantially pop-friendlier Dummy. Its draw lies in the unlikelihood of replicating it, and its defining quality of not being readily duplicable has enshrined the album’s influence on subsequent artists. Third has served as a spiritual guide for musicians of all sorts, particularly among a coterie that was making some of its best work in the late 2010s.
Examples abound. You could argue that Perfume Genius’ 2017 album No Shape has the same using-skeletons-as-instruments quality as Third: the percussion opening “Slip Away,” the eerie slither of “Go Ahead.” (Coincidentally, the Perfume Genius album before that one, 2014’s Too Bright, boasts an Adrian Utley co-production credit.) The “Machine Gun” sample on The Weeknd’s 2013 Kiss Land single “Belong To The World” was neither subtle nor authorized, with Barrow unleashing his full ire toward Abel Tesfaye for sampling Portishead without permission.
But for the most part, musicians have used Third as an ideological goalpost rather than a sonic template. “We were trying to understand how to use the studio more. And Third is a record where the songs really grow in the production,” Katie Alice Greer said about her now-defunct punk band Priests’ 2017 debut album, Nothing Feels Natural. That album is often all propulsion compared to Third, but its inclusion of sounds beyond punk’s purview—shoegaze, surf rock, a tinge of new wave—feels indebted to Third’s free-flying experimentation, a brilliant amalgam of myriad styles that still coursed with the group’s fundamentally militant DNA.
And when Sharon Van Etten returned with 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow, she also had Third to thank for a moody, synth-filled rebirth after her come-up as a folk-tinged indie rocker. “‘Machine Gun’ is one of my favorite songs,” she said around the time she released the album, and soon covered the track. It speaks volumes of Third’s incomparability that Van Etten’s relatively faithful cover never reaches the brittle, acerbic highs of the original, though she seemed to know it didn’t stand a shot: She replaces the original’s thwacking, devil-at-the-door final two minutes with somewhat more ambient-leaning sounds. You can try to conjure Third’s spirit, but the closest you can come is still a good distance removed.
Even Barrow, Utley, and Gibbons probably couldn’t give us a Third—Part Two if they tried. Not that they’d want to: “[W]e mustn’t use instruments that we’ve used before,” Utley has said about the process behind Third. “Our trademark sound, once we’ve got it, we want to destroy it and move on to something else. So we have to become something else, we have to re-emerge as something else all the time but still the same.” On “The Rip,” the band undergoes this transformation in real-time, and it’s devastatingly beautiful. The track opens as a tender ballad comprising solely fingerpicked acoustic guitars and lightly humming synths, with Gibbons calmly singing of wild white horses taking her away, her placidity emphasizing the presumptive apocalypse of her visions.
Then, halfway through the song, drums come in and a bleary, blurry synth replaces the guitar melody note-for-note: Here is a band destroying itself and recreating itself within mere seconds, all inside one song. Simultaneously, the trio manipulates Gibbons’ voice to sound as though she’s holding a note for a full minute. It is absolutely breathtaking, and the essence of what Portishead strives for on Third—so wholly beautiful that the other one-word, constantly reinventing-itself British band whose name ends in “head” has unofficially covered it. (Thom Yorke has also sung it with Gibbons onstage.)
It’s also not quite something you can sing along to. Yes, there is a fraction of Portishead’s audience who seek that from them: In footage from the band’s 2013 Glastonbury set, the whole crowd joins along on the choruses of the Dummy classics “Glory Box” and “Sour Times,” at times more loudly than the notoriously shy Gibbons sings them. Elsewhere, the set suggests Third could’ve been a propulsive record, had Portishead wanted that: The live rendition of “Magic Doors” feels like it’s whizzing by in time-and-a-half. The chorus’s pianos still strike as though they’re filling some sort of grief-stricken void, and Gibbons’ opening one-two punch of “I can’t deny what I’ve become / I’m just emotionally undone” quavers with just as much neurosis.
Portishead has seemed interested in exploring the relationship between tempo and mood in the years after Third. Their 2009 single “Chase the Tear” sounds like dancefloor-ready Third—as the track’s jittery, bleary synths and hissing cymbals run circles around one another, the trio finds a mobility absent on its last record. But the band has yet to make any good on this tease: On its only 2010s release, a 2016 cover of ABBA’s “SOS,” the fearsome clatter of Third and the haze that defined Portishead in the ’90s are nowhere to be found. But while “SOS” got plenty of people excited for a return, the band itself might never be: Barrow hinted at work on a new album in 2015, yet nothing has materialized. That’s understandable: Constantly destroying and rebuilding a band sounds utterly draining. In the meantime, Third has been guiding plenty of musicians to rebirths of their own.