portishead's third; thinking about music criticism

If art criticism could be defined as the art of objectifying a subjective experience – of filtering a visceral experience through rational evaluation – then music criticism has to be the black sheep of the criticism family. Resistant to the kind of analysis that can take apart a novel or film, music can obviously be judged on the technical side of music theory, but in the end boils down to the visceral, pre-rational experience. This aesthetic kind of criticism, limited only by the obvious requirement that musicians hit the right notes – is more of a genealogical, historical, comparative affair. Which explains why music reviews often read like a catalogue of analogies, snap judgments, and unsupported assertions. The film critic, at least, can point to a film’s technique (writing included) to justify why this or that aspect of the film works or doesn’t work. With music, however, once a certain proficiency threshold has been passed (and the bar isn’t necessarily that high), criticism yields to interpretation. At which point, the only thing to do is listen to an album and decide for yourself whether you like what you hear or not. Perhaps distinguishing between “criticism” and “review” is actually useful here.

I’ve only once done music reviews, for Morbid Outlook way back in August 2007. It was a fun experience and I’d do it again, but there’s something about reviewing music that feels like mere opiniating, like passing judgment without the net of reason beneath to catch the loose ends of the purely subjective. Music reviews are the equivalent of lazy film critics who settle for summarizing a film’s plot instead of dissecting the plot’s manifestation through cinematic technique. As an example, here’s Rob Sheffield’s review, at Rolling Stone mag, of Portishead’s long-awaited third album:
It's been ten years since the world last heard from Portishead, the U.K. trip-hop trio, and they do not sound like they've spent the past decade going to therapy, listening to new music or making friends. Actually, they sound like they spent it locked in a tea cupboard underwater off the coast of Bristol, with a piped-in orchestral soundtrack from Dario Argento horror movies. Is this a problem?
No way — nobody ever listened to Portishead for their sparkling personalities or musical variety. What they're brilliant at is obsessively textured studio dread, and Third is an unexpected yet totally impressive return. Beth Gibbons still has her high-pitched trill ("Wounded and afraid/Inside my head," she sings in the opener, "Silence" — big surprise), but she's just another sound effect in the audio creep show of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. "We Carry On" is a smashingly claustrophobic two-note electro riff, with heavy echoes of the Silver Apples' "Oscillations." In highlights like "The Rip," "Small" and "Machine Gun," Portishead mix up dub, break beats, cathedral organ, Moroccan drones and even surf rock into a headphone album for sour times.

Can I do better? Unlikely. (Well, maybe a little?) Here’s my take on Third:
Portishead’s eponymous second outing illustrated the hazard of achieving that holy grail of music, a distinctive sound: the hazard of getting stuck in an endlessly-repeating groove. But the album was solid in its own right, a masterful and necessary continuation of the scratchy, sample-laden, and tripped-out mourning vibe that made Dummy so singularly special and genuinely brilliant. And the concert album, Roseland NYC Live, proved that Portishead could work its way with different kinds of instrumentation, a quality of musicianship also revealed by their remixes and artist collaborations. Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, along with Beth Gibbons, are musicians, not monkeys acting out their training.
So Third presented the band with the challenge of being Portishead without being Portishead. Consummate musicians that they are, they meet the challenge head-on with a superlative album that comfortably fits the mood of a dimly-lit room. Veering away (more or less) from hip-hop and into electronic territories laced with industrial, Third is both reinvention and reassertion, possessed of the same introspective melancholy that gives Portishead’s music a gothic flavour, but juiced up by ever-unexpected rhythms, sonic booms, burrowing melodies, and aching lyrics. And, of course, there’s Gibbons – whose voice is often raw, but with a plaintive, breaking quality that is just right for songs of sorrow.
Typical of Portishead, Third is the kind of album that makes adjectives nervous. A hip-hop flavour there, a trace of Trent Reznor here, surreal soundscapes everywhere; this is an album from far out of left field. Just as the Portishead “sound” had long reached overexposure, Third comes along to shake up the music world’s complacency with an effort that evades crass commercialism and preserves the scrappy spirit of musicians developing their own voice in the wilderness.
In all fairness, it is possible for music reviews to go beyond simple aesthetic reactions – see Brian Hiatt’s review of AC/DC’s latest. But I still have to ask: if somebody doesn’t like the way a piece of music sounds, can a music critic change that with a review?

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