Portishead - Portishead

FUNNY THING happened the other day when a copy of Hex Files - The Goth Bible crashlanded in the NME toaster. Funnier still, in this book, in among the comprehensive global references to such scowling beat combos as Love Is Colder Than Death, Catastrophe Ballet and A Sordid Puppy - oh yes - there was a listing for your friends and mine, Portishead, beneath which the author had frothed, "Dance music? Sorry? Dance?! You can barely walk to this stuff... This is nothing other than perfect goth."

Contentious? Toi? Well, yes. But if 1994's 'Dummy' album had any nasty creases ironed out by the cooing coffee table set, not to mention the odd corporate cock-massaging Mercury Prize, this follow-up sees Portishead in particularly vicious form; if 'Dummy' was smoky film noir material, this is a choking Hammer Horror ho-ho-free hoedown, with Beth Gibbons demonstrating spectacularly cackling behavioural instincts.

Indeed, 'tis hard to think of anyone who can touch her roving vocal range now. Bjšrk may be cruising back into form, but when one single singer manages to combine Shirley's showy instincts with Dusty's sensual croak, Eartha's feline grrrrowl and Cilla's side-parting, you realise just how close Beth is coming to achieving legendary chanteuse status. Throw in the fact that she virtually parodies 'Loving You' by Minnie Riperton on the deliciously dark 'Only You' and the world really is her, umm, vampire.

Trip-hop? Pah! Forget new grave while you're at it, as well - this is new graveyard. I mean, for Beelzebub's sake, they have a song on here called 'Mourning After'! Predictably, fellow 'Heads Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley and Dave McDonald ensure that the atmosphere is all-important, creating a crackling, eerie soundtrack replete with some brilliantly morose trombone, splendidly deranged piano and the odd great quack-tastic duck sound effect. Obviously.

It goes without gurgling that 'Portishead' consists primarily of extremely classy, carefully planned out vignettes on love, hate and several things in between. What will come as a surprise is the degree of nastiness wriggling through these 11 tracks. "Now that I've found you/And seen behind those eyes/How can I carry on?" Beth wonders in 'Undenied'; "Is it all as it seems?/So unresolved, so unredeemed?" she wails in 'Humming'. "You're gonna get your f??ing head kicked in!" she snarls in 'Ball Biter'.

Oh, alright, the last one was made up, but the point is that when Beth sneers, "Why should I forgive you after all that I've seen/Quietly whisper when my heart wants to scream?" during 'Seven Months' she's capturing the sort of punter-friendly essence of emotional fear which would chuff squidgy-heart songwriting heroes Bacharach & David to the bottom of their tans. Because Portishead know exactly what it is that you get when you fall in love.

True, 'Portishead' hardly hurtles through a veritable myriad of musical styles; 'Only You' may flirt with scatter cushion-scaring wiggy-wiggy-wiggly scratching, and 'Cowboys' dallies with splendidly cranky guitars, but fundamentally it does all sound the same and, in true goth fashion, cheerily runs the full gamut of emotion from misery to unhappiness.

So the words 'light' and 'entertainment' rarely spring to mind. But hey, Beth doesn't sell sanctuary. She sells wavering, painfully sensitive choruses, desperately distorted soundscapes and good old-fashioned tunes concerning obsession, infatuation, loss, desire and all the other creepy-crawly, scrapey-scrawly elements which makes humanity such a fascinating pile of pony dung.

Look who's stalking...

8/10

Simon Williams