I still remember the first time I heard “Magic Doors,” and realized that Portishead had somehow managed to refine its sound from the cliche of Trip Hop, and yet remain emotionally consistent with everything that had come before. There is such sorrow and melancholy in this track; it’s not just Beth Gibbons’ voice, or the words she’s singing (“I can’t deny or hide from me/I don’t know who I’m meant to be”). Is it the constantly-downward synthetic strings, or the finality of the piano when it appears? I don’t know; whereas earlier Portishead had a retro cool to it, this song – and a lot of Third, the album it comes from – is purposefully dissonant and awkward in its beauty. The opening tone that crashes into the drums… It’s utterly compelling, but somehow difficult to listen to at the same time. You struggle through this song, in a way, but in such a way that the entire thing feels curiously enriching nonetheless.
It’s been years since I’ve really listened to “Glory Box,” probably the biggest hit from Portishead’s first album Dummy; it was one of those songs that I was convinced I had over-heard, that I was too used to from listening to the album endlessly when it came out, and then the single came out and it was everywhere… But it’s playing in the cafe that I’m sitting in right now, and it sounds much sharper, much less bloated and self-obsessed than I remembered it. It’s as if I had replaced the original – with Beth Gibbons’ voice cracking with emotion and the retro guitar twanging shamelessly, not quite a cliche just yet, months and countless rip-offs yet to come – with some idea of what it sounded like.
There are some songs that I wish I could hear for the first time all the time; relive the thrill of that first listen, the zigging when I expected a zag, or whatever, and be surprised and impressed every single time. This is definitely one of them; it was worth ignoring the song for years to hear it again as if it was, if not the first, then surely not the one hundredth, time.