Tuesday, 20 May 2008

PORTISHEAD: Threads


"...You're a writer...You push people around on a nice clean white page. Do this, do that, you say. Speak. Be quiet. Cry."


"And when I look up from the page?"


"You see real people."


"Real...people."

(From the 1976 television play Double Dare, written by Dennis Potter)


Of course I have no factual basis on which I can prove that Portishead are saying what I believe they are saying on Third. I can draw a fairly well defined musical line between, say, Third and the Soft Machine's 1970 album Third ("The Moon In June"; Wyatt cheerfully spouting semi-gibberish to ward off the apocalypse) but lyrically I have to fall back on the optic(al illusion?) of the same event being described from eleven different perspectives, or eleven different versions of the same song. Or one 49-minute-long song split into eleven reasonably tidy fragments. Just as, for instance, The Prisoner now more than ever seems to me like seventeen different ways of telling the same story.


There is no great catharsis at the end of "Threads," merely the memory of the eighties television drama of that name which dealt with nuclear holocaust in Sheffield. She has reached the light at the end of the tunnel and it is not the sunshine nor is it an approaching train; it is a queerer light, a greenness she has never quite seen before, and it is slowly terrifying.


And I think of "Orang," the opening track of Herd Of Instinct, a 1994 album released by 'O'Rang, a duo comprising Lee Harris and Paul Webb, late of Talk Talk and impatient with Mark Hollis' work rate, whose music implied a booting viscerality which represented an opposing vision of release to Hollis' calm, refracted prayers; the CD booklet is full of violent, vivid images of cleansing by fire, of suppressed desecration of idols, of escape and ultimate release by means of ritual surrender. "Orang" the song is some ten minutes in duration, moving very steadily from troubled calm to etiolated eruptions; the voices aren't quite clear enough to discern what they are singing but they are clearly striving to get out of this burning place. Placid piano procedurals give way, via the crucial guitar of Bark Psychosis' Graham Sutton, to semi-improvised riots and then back to an even more disturbed peace.


One of the voices on "Orang" belonged to Beth Gibbons and it is to this sense of ritual that she seems to have been returning throughout Third. The precipitating factor is beyond dreadful if I am reading the spaces between the lines correctly - and the above Rashomon comparison may not be too absurd - but something terrible, even evil, has happened to her (even though she blames herself nearly all the way through the record and indeed at one point on "Threads" exclaims "And I can't find no one to blame") and she is struggling to find a way back to truth first and life second, only to find increasingly concave mirrors, closing in on what is left of her shattered beliefs - "I've travelled so far but somehow feel the same."


There is a fatigue here which goes beyond "Feel Like Goin' Home"-type battered wisdom - the line "I am alive when I sleep" immediately makes me think of Bill Fay's "the only time I'm not tired is when I'm asleep" - and there develops a mantra, over the most delicately brilliant Portishead backing track you have ever heard


(the unutterable sublimity of the spaces between guitar and drums, the abandoned port, the ravaged tower, the greatness that this group and only this group could have produced - and it's no coincidence that this is the album's only track with a full, live band)


but then this other Gorgon, half smeared sax (Will Gregory), half detuned supra-amplified guitar chaos (apparently played by Gibbons herself), keeps coming in with its gnarly cricket bat signals as she, worn out but still advancing, keeps insisting "I'm always so unsure" before reaching the nadir of self-sacrifice:

"STAND, STAND, DAMNED ONE"


"I AM ONE"

"DAMNED"

"ONE"


The ego which has closed this world down slaughters itself - for Third does sound like the last rites before the gnarled cricket match that is human existence grinds itself down and burns itself out forever - and at last Beth bursts out, invoking Janis just as she did at the end of "Sour Times" whenever she sang it live, screaming and growling this "DAMNED" and "ONE" before being buried in the harsh ash of the inescapable siren blast, now growing louder, now persisting, and then ceasing its last post


"Where do I go?"


Even The Drift had that last escape hatch of a whisper ("It's OK") but by the end of Third there seems little beyond this last lighthouse than...well, blankness, a huge blanket of blankness, and I cannot honestly rule out the possibility that this blankness is a mirror and that I have spent a fortnight analysing something which is basically blank. However, I honestly doubt that this is the case - otherwise, why come back after eleven years' absence, why say or proclaim anything? The grain of Beth's voice - which has now sounded nothing but exhausted and drained - suggests the truthful, and it is probably the case that her truth does not and should not concern me, but yet she has elected to communicate it, and this record has ended with no hoped-for reason or comedy fifties torch pastiche but a boom which seems to shatter the globe into even smaller pieces with every recurrence.


But Third has the partially unforeseen side-effect of invigorating me as a listener, of engaging me as an active emotional participant, and thus very cleverly denies its own apocalypse. I will end by quoting at length from a radio monologue I heard in the mid-seventies - it has never been repeated and possibly never even broadcast outside Scotland - entitled The Artist In Search Of A City, where the nominal artist, voiced by John Grieve and in search of Glasgow, visits his former partner in art Donald, a man of assumed genius, now an inpatient at the large psychiatric hospital in Lenzie. Donald has just said something very foolish, and Grieve's artist, loving him though he does, erupts with fury and awaits his reaction:


"He didn't move. Hardly seemed to notice. He just said, quietly, 'There are degrees of madness. Mine is maybe not the worst; it only harms myself (pause). If you'd have been where I'd have been, you'd have seen the Fairy Queen!'


(a childhood chant to which Grieve has previously alluded)


"I crept out - hardly said goodbye (then without a pause). The fresh air hit me like a punch. Forget it. Forget the bloody lot. Get back to life, get back to painting!"


The attendant irony need, as ever, not be underlined. But the message is clear ("Message? MESSAGE?? Do you think I'm a bloody postman?") - sometimes rock bottom can be a disguised trampoline. Bouncing back to ground level, as Bim did and everyone reading this knows Beth will, we carry on. Gambon and Suzman depart the hospital together at the end of The Singing Detective, and McGoohan gets back to his "life" and isn't quite sure whether it's an afterlife. We, bloodied, carry on.