“As radical reinventions go, Third is surprisingly natural. You can credit Gibbons as the familiarizing factor: She possesses a voice that seems impossible to shackle to just one musical setting, even if it already sounds perfectly at home in brooding downtempo ambience. As the most recognizable component of the group, she has the most established stylistic tendencies– subtle quivers, an ability to go from hushed to piercing without laboring over the transition, an aching timbre that expresses anxious vulnerability better than nearly any other singer– and she slips back into them comfortably when she needs to.
But it’s also a style that works in more contexts than we’ve previously heard, something she hinted at with Rustin Man on 2002’s folk and jazz-influenced Out of Season, and Third is the culmination of this. Pitted against the jarring mechanical stop-starts of first single “Machine Gun” or the chase-scene-paced opener “Silence”, Gibbons sounds like both a defiant accuser and someone clinging on for dear life. Quieter numbers, like the slow-build electronic ballad “The Rip” or the softer moments of the cabaret highwire act “Hunter”, highlight the fragility in her voice. And since almost every song on Third addresses some sort of emotional or mental helplessness– typically a deep and profound sense of loss and isolation– it’s almost as though this shift in sonic identity is there to mask the fact that this is an incredibly bleak record lyrically. Gibbons’ wounded tone can take commonplace-on-paper sentiments (“I’d like to laugh at what you said but I just can’t find a smile”; “I can’t deny what I’ve become/ I’m just emotionally undone”) and give them a kind of pathos that’s almost uncomfortably voyeuristic to listen to.
As for how the music itself has changed, long story short: Third is a psychedelic rock album. It opens with a rhythm that’s nearly twice as fast as almost everything else Portishead have done, the percussion on most of the songs is frequently muffled or buried under layers of noise and sometimes just stops short of being non-existent (though it’s heavy and propulsive when it does make itself known), and their keyboards and strings have graduated from relaxed tension into dissonant rumbles and shrieks. There’s a brief acoustic folk song (“Deep Water”), an abrasive and jittery electro-industrial number (“Machine Gun”), free jazz horns (“Magic Doors”), analog freakouts from the United States of America-fueled early days of electronic psych (“The Rip”), and a song that sounds a bit like Clinic’s droning, rhythmically dense garage-kraut, except somehow spookier (“We Carry On”). Portishead as you previously knew them are represented, barely, by the last song on the album– the sleepwalk-paced, David Axelrod-esque “Threads”– and even then, its intermittently fuzzed-out tension-and-release dynamic would’ve made it one of the harshest-sounding songs on Dummy or Portishead.
You could say that this would be unrecognizable as a Portishead album without Gibbons’ voice, and you’d be sort of right; guitarist and contributing songwriter Adrian Utley mentioned in a recent New York Times article that one of the rules they set for Third was that they couldn’t fall back on any instruments– or even any trademark sounds– that they’d used on previous albums. But their style here isn’t particularly out of character, comparatively experimental as it is; Utley’s guitar still twangs sharply when it’s not doing things like interjecting “Iron Man” growls in “Hunter” or splintering into Syd Barrett-isms at the coda of “Small”, and the melodic identity that he and Geoff Barrow built on a foundation of minor keys and sinister grandeur still holds sway. In the terms of a group that was frequently lumped in with film composers as much as Bristol axis peers, Portishead’s Euro-cool John Barry intrigue has been pushed into the disquieting territory of John Carpenter’s compositions and Bernard Herrmann’s Alfred Hitchcock scores.” from nate patrin’s review for pitchfork