In the early 90’s few were aware that a genre of great impact and the band spearheading the sonic movement would originate out Bristol, UK. Portishead would emerge to carry the standard for Triphop. A genre that was quintessentially Bristol, Chilly, miasmic and dark and would later be labeled as “The Bristol Sound”. Like a newly discovered wonder Portishead’s sonics burst onto the popular music scene with an appositionally unsettling and off kilter aural feel that still influences a wide number of musical entities today. They along with their soulmates Massive Attack would cement the reputation of Bristol as the ersatz capital of Triphop.
Portishead was formed in 1991 and was named for the nearby town eight miles away. Initially the band was formed as a duo with Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons. Adrian Utley who was initially credited as a co producer on “Dummy” would become an official member after the debut making them a trio. They would eventually add as a fourth member David McDonald who had been the engineer on “Dummy” along with session drummer Clive Deamer also frequently orbiting in their atmosphere.
“Dummy” would be recorded between 1993 and 1994 at State of Art and Coach House Studios in Bristol. There were additional musicians used to flesh out the sound of the recording, most prominently drummer Clive Deamer. During the period in the studio the band would invent their own way of creating music, mixing master musicianship, technology and mood. Barrow, Deamer and Utley would jam in the studio, then engineer the tunes onto a 24 track tape, feed it back through sequencers and press the sounds on vinyl to manipulate them even further. From there Beth Gibbons’ would spin her alchemy providing a center for the music; adding sorrow, a certain knowingness, allure and grimness all in their turn. She had the singular ability to morph her performance vocally into whatever the sonics demanded producing a compelling allure. The songs that came out of this process were unique. The tracks would harken to the ambiance of Bristol, an ambiguous neon lit form reflected in dark puddles of ennui.
There was little sense of warning in advance of Portishead’s emergence. They had not gigged before the “Dummy” release and were not operating like a traditional band in any sense of the definition. The band was positively allergic to press coverage but somehow managed to be revered critically and become commercially successful. “Dummy” produced three singles “Numb, Sour Times, and Glory Box” all of which would climb the charts. “Dummy” would win a Mercury Music Prize in 1995. It would go to #2 on the UK Album Charts, reach #5 on the Alternative Charts in the States, and be certified gold in 1997. The album would go on to sell 2 million copies and counting and be certified double Platinum. That is an awfully good showing for an album that was the definition of Alternative; weaving together strands of Blues, Funk, and Hip Hop infusing them with icy ennui and a blast of cool. ‘Dummy” is filled with the disquieting brilliance of claustrophobia, emotional numbness and dark dread. When all is said and done, “Dummy” is cited as one of the greatest Trip Hop albums to date and a definitive milestone for the genre.
Dummy opens with “Mysterons” which is like music created for a Noir film yet to be made. The dreamy distorted accompaniment is loaded with spectacular drums, scratch effects and Gibbon’s emotional keening pleas. Those pleas come forth like a letting loose of emotions in a most arresting non British way. There is a steady “stream of consciousness” flow that speaks to the suppression to the unconscious of various crimes and violations. “Inside your pretending, crimes have been swept aside, somewhere where they can forget”. All the while the underlying motivations and intents are judged. “Mysterons” is a spectacular opener just giving a taste of what is to follow.
Probably the best know song of the release; “Sour Times” is like a drug infecting the senses with the ennui of forlorn lust and desire. In an era of sampling, Portishead provided seamless samplings in this case from; Lalo Schifrin, Otis Turner and Henry Brooks. But the track is not just about the samples and more about the samples blending in to enhance the fantastic James Bondesque guitar, hurdy gurdy/balalaika effects and a bass that nails the song. There is an ethereal existential ethos to the lyrics, “end the vows, no need to lie, enjoy, take a ride, take a shot now…cause nobody love me, it’s true, not like you do.” Gibbons delivers a spot on come hither coyness that heightens the sensuous allure making the sexual potency of the track palpable. “Sour Times” is a simply gorgeous concoction and it is easy to understand why it lodged in the public’s ear.
“Strangers” is delicious quintessential Portishead. It is suave and sophisticated all the while conveying isolation and individuality. The jazzy intro head fakes for a moment then breaks out into an outrageous blend of Trip Hop sound with jaw dropping percussion. Gibbons’ knowing vocal delivery is enchanting as she lays out the lyrical gems, “Did you realize, no one can see inside your view, did you realize, for why this sight belongs to you.” Here is a song that beckons to be loved. “It Could Be Sweet” is a torch song with that special proprietary blend of cool thrown into the mix. Presented is an exhibition of restraint and minimalism with simple percussive effects and a light touch producing a wondrous work. The jazz blend brings out the evocative feel of Gibbons’ vocal as it takes front and center. The lyrics play on the idea of what ifs. What if that one thing could be added or taken away to make something perfect or sweet? Identified is that the problem is all too often with ourselves, our fear and cowardice, “You don’t get something for nothing, turn now; mmmm you gotta try a little harder.”
The double whammy of “Wandering Star” resides in the great marriage of insistent bass and drums producing that plodding effect that is a beat line to die for. Additionally stellar is the horn usage and that diddle of a guitar riff. Numerous samplings were also utilized to perfect the song, with the sum being greater than any one part on the instrumentation. The topic was depression and how its monotony descends like a cloud blocking out all the joy of living, “Please could you stay awhile to share my grief for it’s such a lovely day to have to always feel this way.” The track is probably one of my favorites of the release.
“It’s a Fire” contains some fantastic droning keyboards and again marries many genres. It begins like a Kate Bush ballad and then slides into a funky Trip Hop testimonial with gospel stylings. There is great pathos as the lyrics consider whether or not life is some kind of great cosmic joke. “Cos this life is a farce, I can’t breathe through this mask like a fool.” In the end the realization is that humanity and the individual persevere no matter how foolish that may seem. From the questioning of life’s intent the song “Numb” moves on to examining loneliness and isolation. Conveyed is a feeling of being lost in a crowd, unable to relate or feel. Gibbons’ delivery is charged with sexual electricity that attempts to mask the true sadness of the lyric and her vulnerability. “Try to reveal what I could feel but this loneliness it just won’t leave me alone”. The alluring Trip Hop beat and Hammond organ along side that rain drop drum create a fantastic backdrop for the vocals to sail overtop. For all of song’s outward armor it puts on display the soulful nakedness of the inner person.
“Roads” is the song that most reflects Massive Attack’s influences. There is an unmade movie somewhere that belongs to this song. The wavery intro keyboards produce the moody panorama for the track. Many of the same elements found in the other tracks are arranged beautifully to make for a truly outstanding selection. The soaring strings drip with emotions as Gibbons gives what in my opinion is her most touching vocal performance of the release. Addressed is the fight within ourselves and the overall fight for civilization; “I got nobody on my side and surely that ain’t right… oh, can’t anybody see we got a war to fight.” It is an expansive and ever revealing song that lodges into your soul not letting go.
In hindsight what really wows on “Dummy” is the sustained freshness and consistent quality of the tracks. There is no settling for the subpar as “Pedestal” again stuns. Its brilliant beats throb along with the sly cymbal work making for a sinuous track that is oh so appealing. The lyrics show someone placed on a pedestal or is it a pillory platform alone and abandoned to the whims of judgment and ridicule with nowhere to hide, “You abandoned me how I suffer, ridicule breathes a sigh”. As to Gibbons’ presentation, her stilted delivery is cunningly apt when compared to the expected over emoting that would be the usual approach. Beautifully placed horns add the icing on this magnificent creation, I hate for this song to end.
The brilliant “Biscuit” is another tour d force, with its pulled around sampling and every note and element perfectly placed to provide the feelings of isolation, despair and abandonment. The song at first gives a very off kilter feeling but with each listening pass becomes more extraordinary. Gibbons’ wavery emotional vocal conveys all the universal heartbreak felt by everyone, “it’s just I’m scared. Got hurt a long time ago.” The lyrics continue pointing out how this one emotion love, can take over our entire outlook. We are slaves to our carnal desires, “…sin, slave of sensation”. Crazy good drum beats and perfect guitar treatments make for a wonky but oh so good track.
The final selection “Glory Box” utilized a sample from Isaac Hayes for its inspiration. The song is a grand finale to the album, a spectacular display of all the members of Portishead’s strengths. The narrative of the lyrics plays like a motion picture in your head taking place in some nicotine stained nightclub. The main protagonist is an ingénue ready to hand off her crown of seduction, “I’m so tired of playing with this bow and arrow…for I’ve been a temptress for too long.” The chorus cuts the crap, “give me a reason to love you, give me a reason to be a woman, I just want to be a woman.” It is a direct statement with little room for misinterpretation. The lyric is also the declaration of being finished with the ennui of the spinning treadmill of love. Gibbons once again pulls off a polished performance as the hard boiled arch, come hither cookie. She is teasing, coy and yet straightforward as she reveals what every man needs to do to succeed,” so don’t you stop being a man, just take a little look from outside when you can, show a little tenderness no matter if you cry.” Underpinning this extraordinary narrative is the mesmerizing beat, strings and genius droning guitar that eventually floats off into the ether. “Dummy” gets one hell of a send off with this track, it is no wonder it was a hit single, the perfect punctuation to a brilliant groundbreaking release.
Portishead with “Dummy” produced music well outside of the customary offerings of its time. The songs sounded like a savvy music connoisseur had been let loose in a record studio and pressed the record button creating soundtracks for imaginary movies. In hindsight it can be hard to grasp how revolutionary “Dummy” was with its creative studio muscle and heart rendering emotions. When rave and grunge were ruling the day, here was Dub and Breakbeat blended with oscillating tempos, retro keyboards, tremolo guitar licks, jazz horns and turntable scratches. It is easy now to listen and say “but of course it is brilliant” but its potential for success was not so apparent in the period. The true brilliance of Portishead’s “Dummy” is its ability to present an off kilter offering that was attuned to the universal struggles and internal pain of the individual.
Portishead continues to create unforgettable music at their own self determined pace. They following up “Dummy” with their eponymous 1997 release and “Third” in 2008 each of which has continued garnering critical praise and commercial success. With almost a decade between each release it would seem as if it is just about time for another offering to add to their illustrious discography. Portishead’s “Dummy” has often been imitated but never replicated because masterworks cannot be truly copied and “Dummy” is a masterwork.