Portishead’s mix of ’60s soundtrack music, hip-hop beats, dub and detached female vocals became an instant reference point when their first album, Dummy, came out, in 1994. Three years later, with the very first notes of Portishead, the group easily re-establishes its mastery of the genre now known as trip-hop. Instrumentalists Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley have refined their sound to an instantly identifiable essence: bleeps transmitted from outer space, familiar syncopation and turntable scratches.
When Beth Gibbons starts singing in a pinched, affected voice, we know that success hasn’t improved the band’s mood. “All Mine” may begin like a hiccuping James Bond theme, but it turns out to be a tale of coolly detached possessiveness: “There’s nowhere to hide from me…./All mine, you have to be.” In “Only You,” the singer is imprisoned in a circle of abject dependence — love is never seen as liberating but as binding, confining. “Half Day Closing” is as chilly as a cold wind blowing on a desolate plain — the instruments sound as if they are miles behind Gibbons’ voice, wrapped in a creepy gauze of vinyl hiss.
By the time we reach “Mourning Air,” it becomes obvious that the Bristol, England, combo uses the same tricks on every song, and that’s when morbid fascination turns into ennui. Paradoxically, the music can simultaneously sound huge (Barrow is an amazing sonic architect) and be tensely coiled onto itself. The entire record is an exercise in barren claustrophobia, as if Portishead had spent the past three years burrowing deeper and deeper into a self-obsessed, self-contained world. At this point, we can only hope — for their sake and for the listeners’ — that they come up for air soon.