Thoughts on listening to “Third”

Not really thoughts about Third itself, though I’ll have some of those too. There’s always something nice about not having to review something, consciously or not.

If I had actually wanted to listen to Portishead‘s new album some time ago, I could have. A while back I mentioned the leak and how I didn’t have it at the time; in between then and now someone had offered the mp3s my way. But I decided against it for a variety of reasons, one of which was, quite simply, quality of the sound.

Pardon my quoting myself from my Marooned essay but a key part applies, talking about why I never ripped Loveless for listening:

I don’t want it playing out of my computer for heaven’s sake, I want it out of the stereo speakers, the great old ones from the ’60s, that my dad got as a young sailor and which I now own. They’re monstrous and clunky, but dang if they don’t make everything I play through them sound great.

I would never describe myself as an audiophile or purist, first of all. Further, that was written before I finally got a better set of speakers for my computer earlier this year, and the bass punch on them is significantly better than what I had before. Yet there are albums or expectations of listening to them that hold sway still — some albums I want to hear first and foremost, and maybe only, through my stereo setup, through those speakers. And even if CDs or any other form of ‘full’ file sounds are still in the end reductions of what was recorded to a particular and passable medium rather than some pure state, it’s still something where I’d like to hear the full details in many cases.

There’s also a sense of not ruining your Christmas surprise, or the equivalent — one can wait on these things to the actual release date. Heck, I didn’t even rush out and get it on the day of official release — I waited until pay day a couple of days later and got it then. I’ve waited a decade for this album, a couple more days wouldn’t hurt, though I admit I was getting impatient yesterday.

I think I should have given into my first impulse and listened to it with all the lights off — sounds like it deserves that kind of close darkness. I did wait, even though I bought it at lunch, to listen to it at home first and not at work, and when the sun was done and it was dark outside. Seemed far more right in that way, and does even more now that it’s complete. But I wanted to match up the track titles to what I was listening to, so one lamp had to be on.

A lot of stuff I listen to while doing something else, reading, composing e-mail, whatever — the argument that there’s a pure state of listening to something is a bit much these days, I think, and the likes of Erik Satie had already undermined that from a musical end one hundred years back (and I’d be willing to bet he had more antecedents than most realize). The act of simply listening and letting your mind drift is as much a willful act of specific concentration as anything else, and that there’s a desire for this kind of active engagement is understandable both on the part of creator and consumer. Reality functions as it does, though — especially in a situation where, say, what the creator deems to be a frivolous element is heard by a consumer as a core part of the piece, or a similar situation in reverse.

So I concentrated and drifted simultaneously, engaged but thinking laterally as I do. Some of my thoughts were extremely random — for instance, how the conclusion of “Machine Gun” feels like an inversion of the end theme for Blade Runner, with the beats given overwhelming prominence over the doomed melancholia of the keyboards. I’m sure there’s a bias given my watchings/rewatchings of late, but when the concluding synth part started, an almost-balm for the relentless punctuation of the beats, the contrast reminded me of that earlier piece almost irresistibly — in large part, I’d guess, since that does conclude a situation where nothing is assured for the characters involved. Similarly “Machine Gun” feels like something final but unresolved, not abbreviated, more like this is the kind of music I might put on in six months time depending on the state of things because little else will capture my feelings of collapse so readily.

Then there was “Threads,” with its building then solitary and then even louder air-raid siren guitar, an approximation, in much simpler fashion, of the V’ger theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture — something pitched down, ominous, arcing out of the sky and glowering down at any observers who might be around. A few friends of mine have already made comparisons to the notorious BBC telefilm of that name from the 1980s and I don’t think it inappropriate, it definitely sounds like a stroke of doom at work. There’s also a sense of something from “Stanlow” by OMD, somehow…just. A conclusion, an end, an abruptness (though not as abrupt as other things).

Then there’s “Deep Water,” and for all the bits that I have read about it being some sort of folk tribute surely it’s more obviously something 20s and music-hall like, with that ukelele or whatever is being used — theatrical, just like the best of what Portishead have always done, the more so because it turns up between the obsessive rumble of “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun” and its pulsing anger.

All of which is to say — yes, quite an album, QUITE an album. Pretty much goes in as my favorite of the year so far and it will take some doing to knock it out. I hope it does, in a way, because that would mean something surprising has come along, something truly unexpected. Until then, though, I know what I’ll have no problem replaying for a long while to come.

One Response to “Thoughts on listening to “Third””

  1. Seven songs, then seven other blogs « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] was, greatly — and a bit problematic, since there was no knock-me-sideways surprise in full. That the album successfully showed the band reinventing its sonic identity is one thing, but it’s not like this was a new band coming out of nowhere, that there wasn’t months, […]


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