Monday, 12 May 2008

PORTISHEAD: Plastic


“’Well,’ she said, ‘meantime for the present we will let it be; for I must look at this new country that we are passing through. See how the river has changed character again: it is broad now, and the reaches are long and very slow-running. And look, there is a ferry!’”

(William Morris, News From Nowhere, chapter XXVIII, “The Little River”)


The allegory with age need not be underlined, but perhaps the impossibility of “going home” on a physical basis could do with some italicisation. From recent and not so recent experience this is impossible; streets I could pick out blindfolded yet I pass through them completely at sea, workplaces once so familiar and now baffling and confusing in their renewed newness. The basic truth that it’s no longer 1994 can be tough to assimilate, as is, for better or worse, the melancholy or euphoric fact that I am no longer quite the person I was fourteen, or even four, years ago. My eyes glaze through my old writing with something mixing astonishment and mystery – did I really feel that way about such a record, or such a person, at that time? Is this ammunition against the supposed immortality of writing about anything at all?


Portishead know that it’s no longer 1994 either. See how tantalisingly and briefly “Plastic” rests in the throne of their own making; that brittle yet tender snap, that click, which a thousand imitators could never get right, the spatiality between guitar and percussion, the settlement of everything and everyone not explicitly suggested. And yet – and what about Benjamin’s future still lying in plastics? – they shake and if necessary slap the listener awake and alert; those drums which keep rolling back on themselves like an ill-tethered piano in a budget removal van, collapsing bridges of deception, falling into atonal pits of guitar and sabretoothed snarling snags of synth (did you expect it to be easy? Listening?) and even when old dummies are recalled there are these napalm swoops of helicopter propellers which obviate clarity, render plaintiveness furtive.


“I wonder why I don’t know what you see?”


Life is no longer what it was; she might be referring to old wounds by singing “On your stage/A show that you create all by yourself/I am nowhere…you never noticed,” but is calmly separating the shards of shattered hope from her more sensitive membranes while eternally aware of the invisible fence of time which has intruded upon what she once might have recognised as life: “I could try/But don’t know what you hear/’Cos in my heart/You were so clear.”


The quiescent rage flourishes back inwards – “It’s just a thought – I’ve said enough.” But then the defence barrier quivers: “Don’t you know life turns me? Always wants me?” she pronounces with decided emphasis. “I can hardly pray” she claims, but knows that going home means people, and most of the time it necessitates the direct and close involvement of people I wouldn’t have known four, or fourteen, years ago; keep the lifelong connections and don’t neglect them, but be prepared to hear and see new things, new lives, and embrace them when you recognise the signs – and you do, always you do – and suddenly the sunken lamppost glow reveals itself as the first stirrings of sunrise but the purpose of Third is to fight its way through the mist.

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