Wednesday, November 26, 2008

video #67: Portishead - The Rip

Youtube / Island Records have disabled embedding for this video, so you'll have to actually click the link to view it, but it will probably play better on their page than on this cluttered and already media-overloaded blog. That probably works out for the best when you have a video as busy and detailed as this one, which you'll need to watch more than once if you hope to take in even half of its comically grotesque brilliance.

"The Rip" is one of my favorite songs of the year, one of the most stunning tracks on Portishead's departure as long-awaited return album, Third. It's a fantastic song in its own right, but even as it breaks from the sounds of 90's Portishead (especially the trip-hop of Dummy), it's perhaps not too hard to believe that it was recorded by the same band who wrote all the gloomy and spooky songs on their self-titled album in 1997. Perhaps, that is, if you're really ready to consider that Portishead, once the embodiment of some upper-class, idealized vision of 1990's coffeeshop "urban cool," could really mutate into a group capable of writing such a paranoid, socially withdrawn, possibly schizophrenic music. The turntablism and dusty beats they were once known for are almost nowhere to be found now, but if you understood them and particularly Beth Gibbons as coming from an especially introverted place that was never calling out for attention like Tricky Kid or Sneaker Pimps, their latest incarnation, or "The Rip" itself, might not come as a terrible shock.

That said, these lyrics will probably conjure up some fairly unsurprising (unsettling and dreadful at times, but unsurprising) mental images in most listeners' minds. Leave it to Portishead to not just release such an bleak track as a single, but to outdo everyone's expectations in the music video. Animated by Nick Uff, whose hand-drawn approach probably requires more work than any mouse-clicking Flash-jockey has ever done in his life. This is one of the most original and imaginative videos I've ever seen, and makes a good case for me to retire this ongoing survey of animated videos. I probably would, if only I didn't know that he has yet another done for Portishead that I've been saving for myself for several weeks now, and will inevitably have to watch and post here.

This video and this song feel like great accomplishments, and I haven't felt like saying that about much of anything in music or art for quite some time. Third wasn't an easy album to get to know, but as the year went on, it just made every other CD I bought, every other album I downloaded, somehow feel like products that would eventually live out their shelf life for me. So much music out there feels "of the moment," which is exciting and sometimes full of potential, but doesn't it feel like the last 5 or 6 years have been a series of replaceable sounds and fads? Excitement is rarely permanent, trends come and go and go and go, and "buzz" bands and their music almost never fail to disappoint if given a long enough (but not even unreasonable!) amount of time to settle into my mind. Third is something else altogether, immediate and essential to our time but not tubthumpingly-reactionary or "clever" in the way that bands try so hard to be these days. Even albums that sound as great as Microcastle or ExitingARM feel vaguely clouded by the sense that they don't really mean anything and that their creators might not actually give a shit about them at all. I don't even know what I mean by this (including my gripes with hyper-posturing bands, many of which I really love), only that it's hard to find any bands writing songs these days that don't seem like they're out to impress or lecture you. Portishead (or Third itself, which feels like an independent object unattached to and uninvolved with any group of people so caught up in the cycle of promotion, recognition, and celebrity as a band) seems unconcerned with pursuing any of these goals and despite this it's a powerful and personable record that's not at all charming but definitely irresistable. I don't know if I'll be "coming back to it for years" or not. Somehow that just feels like a silly question to try to answer right now.

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