For I am guilty for the voice that I obey
Well, here it is, friends, my frontrunner for 2008's single of the year. I hope you can forgive that brief burst of hype, but superlative times like these call for superlative measures. That, and everybody I've played Portishead's "Machine Gun" for has responded strangely indifferently. One friend claimed it sounded like boilerplate industrial music. Another discounted it as repetitive and mopey. A third simply said he's heard better from the band. Meanwhile, this lead single from the forthcoming Third has left me totally floored. I think it's damn near miraculous Portishead can sound so timely after taking an eleven-year hiatus between studio albums.
First things first, Beth Gibbons still sounds devastating and gorgeous. She invokes the most innocuous lines with deathly urgency. She floats above the chaos beneath like an angel filmed by Wim Wenders. When she sings of "the poison in my heart," there's no doubt some emotional toxin is truly eating away at her. Her lyrics are as bleak and cryptic as ever too, but on "Machine Gun," they seem to allude to our contemporary state. Her mentions of saviors, remedies, and sacrifices could take on geopolitical dimensions if you want them to. Or you can read it as a crisis of faith, religion disseminated at the butt of a gun. Or, and what's probably safest with Portishead, it's a personal condemnation. What's unmistakable though is that even the choices are rigged and that violence has penetrated us all.
But even more central to this song's ferocity is its defiantly innovative instrumentation. It's great a band so defined by its signatures soundscapes saw fit to shed them entirely. Portishead in 2008 isn't trying to recapture its old glory or merely update successful formulas. They're pushing forward boldly, rewiring their whole musical circuitry. If their presentation of trip-hop was a thrilling synthesis of disparate styles, so too is "Machine Gun." You can hear the genetic strands of industrial music, drum-and-bass, ambient, and experimental electronic in the mix, but this is some recombinant version of those genres, a new animal born to some undefined genus.
The percussion spikes under Gibbons like a bed of nails--sharp, exact, unyielding. It batters away mechanically, evoking both words of the title separately as well as the weapon they form together. The crossfire of the relentless beats and a reverbed choir of Gibbons sighing is almost unbearable in its tension. But the mood ratchets up regardless, building toward a sadistic last two minutes. With no vocals left, a possessed synthesizer suddenly starts groaning and wailing in the barrage. It reminds me of a helicopter fluttering above a war zone at first, but as it gets more emphatic, I think of someone being tortured. Its harsh squeals and discomfiting jumps in pitch could be a voice escaping a body without any choice. It's a pained, painful protest that sounds almost soulful next to the totalitarian drum machine. It's also a brilliant finale to a brutal song, an absolute stunner that pulls no punches and takes no prisoners.
* MP3: "Machine Gun" - Portishead from Third [Preorder it]