Portishead: Dummy (1994)

dummyNote: this post is part of the Britpop Album Showdown series.

As we saw last time in our look at the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust, the term ‘Britpop’ might have come to stand for a certain type of guitar band in the popular memory, but at the time actually encompassed a surprisingly diverse set of acts. What the ‘scene’ (so far as it ever existed) had was actually a commonality of spirit and geography rather than simply a narrowly defined sound.

So again, we find ourselves a little off the beaten track for the traditional songwriter. Oasis, Blur and Pulp came from not just traditional musical angles, but also places steeped in rock mythology. Blur channelled the same kind of London-centric worldview of the Kinks and Madness. Oasis cranked up the rock classicism of The Stone Roses, and Pulp followed in the electronica-outsider vain of their forebears from Sheffield such as the Human League.

Portishead arrived on the scene not just simply out of kilter with the straight-ahead musical format of Britpop’s biggest commercial successes, but in terms of geography and history Bristol was a relative musical backwater. Like lots of towns, it had birthed any number of also-ran New Wave bands like The Agents or The Cortinas over the years, but you’d have been hard-pressed to identify a particular style with the city before the mid-90s. Portishead and Massive Attack arose more or less in tandem to create what became naturally known as The Bristol Sound, but more commonly ‘trip-hop’.

This sound was more electronica-orientated, and fused rap, jazz, dance music, R&B and a certain ‘British’ feel into something that sounded fresh rather than being a re-tread of earlier styles from across the Atlantic.

While Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy (Blue Lines, 1991)  represented probably the apogee of the Bristol Sound’s commercial reach, Portishead were arguably more central to the development of the Britpop scene by dint of timing as much as anything else and so, more or less arbitrarily, they’ve made their way onto my list. Sorry. If you want to write about Massive Attack, then get your own blog! 🙂

With it’s faintly enigmatic air, slow tempos and jazz inflections Dummy became the album for people who were a bit cooler than the louts in jackets who were busy elsewhere with the Blur vs. Oasis chartwars in any case. It also spoke to the new, multi-ethnic vibe that eschewed reliving the 60s in favour of a new sophistication that drew on a much wider pallet of influences. Dummy was proof that ‘Cool Britannia’ wasn’t just a look over the shoulder at the glory days of the 60s, but could stand on its own two feet as a progenitor of something genuinely new. The irony, of course, was that Portishead were the leading exponents of sampling the sounds of the 60s and 70s to create their soundscape.

Arguably, 20 years after Britpop itself faded, it is this style of music that has lingered the longest. Without prejudging the review, this is the sort of music that still fills soundtracks and trendy bars far more than the crash-bang-retro-wallop of most of the bands of the era.

And yet! While the music still sounds “new” – a fair bit of the underpinning sound consists of sampled records from earlier eras. This poses a bit of a quandary for me in the context of this blog – which is, after all, about songwriting. Much in songcraft is about appropriating other works – rare indeed is the song that arrives unannounced with no connection to the work of previous artists – but sampling seems to me to be qualitatively different (not worse, just different) approach to songwriting.

But: enough waffle! 22 years have now passed since Dummy was released, and 108 years since I began this blog post. Let us begin….

1. Mysterons

Dummy begins very much as it intends to continue: a spacious, slightly unsettling aural landscape of cut-up drumbeats that verge on jungle despite the laid-back tempo – all underpinning a song whose meaning is very hard to pin down. One sound that will recur through the record is here aplenty: a guitar sound seemingly taken directly from a James Bond soundtrack – a semi-acoustic, played played clean with a goodly dash of reverb. On top of that theremins come and go – as do washes of synth. The overall effect, particularly when combined with the breathy vocals of singer Beth Gibbons is unsettling – hinting at things unsaid, which given the elliptical nature of the lyrics is compelling.

As we noted when we looked at the Chemical Brothers and Suede, the first track of an album can be declarative of what’s to come and, it turns out, this is also fair here.

2. Sour Times

The song that came to define Portishead in the cultural imagination, Sour Times sounds as timeless now as it did two decades ago. Or, maybe more pertinently, as timeless as it was when Lalo Schifrin first recorded the bulk of it for an episode of the Mission: Impossible TV show in the late 60s. The sample from Schifrin’s original recording is sped up by around a semitone, which makes the timbre of the instrumentation very different, then underpinned with drums sampled from the obscure Smokey Brooks track Spin it Jig. The resulting sound is, as you might expect, very jazzy in sound and the additional guitar part (again: clean, drenched in reverb, and with a smattering of tremelo for good measure) serves to heighten that vibe.

This distinctive backing track provides a great setting for Gibbons’ vocal, which is appropriately fragile and mysterious: “nobody loves me… not like you” is the refrain to which she returns – an obsessive mood that perfectly complements the looping samples.

3. Strangers

Oof. That drum sound though. The first outright evocation of hip hop, this beat wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Public Enemy track were it a few BPM faster. Made to sound more ‘massive’ through the use of (possibly gated) reverb it creates by itself an intense background, which is then decorated with a couple of guitar parts looped low in the mix and passages where fragments of the Elegant People’s Weather Report (1976) crackle and pop in the background – as though heard from another room from an open doorway.

Again, the vocal lines are very much in the jazz idiom – stylised and with good dash of variation. This revisits the sort of obsessive quality we noted in Sour Times: unanswered (and unanswerable) questions woven compellingly through a sinister backdrop of sound.

“Can anybody see the light
Where the morn meets the dew and the tide rises
Did you realize, no one can see inside your view
Did you realize, for why this sight belongs to you”

So, we’re a few songs in now and we already have a fairly clear stylistic identity. From a songwriter’s perspective, this can be both a blessing (easily identifiable and unique) and a curse (sameness over a decent running length). Reliant as these songs are on the grooves from which they are built, they do have the same ‘problem’ that music built in this way often has: without the natural dynamics of chord changes or contrasting verses/choruses, interest has to be generated by playing with the soundscape itself. Here, the pounding drums drop out from time to time in favour of the aforementioned samples, or to leave vocal passages hanging against background noises, but nothing much actually happens in terms of melody.

None of these things are inherently bad, but as I observed when looking at the Chemical Brothers it leaves very little to be said about these tracks as ‘songs’ in the traditional view. They are mood pieces – compelling and dark – but as examples of tunesmithery are barely there.

This kind of music can fail if the music setting isn’t great, or the lyrics fail to offer much. Where Portishead are succeeding here is in the creation of an atmosphere. Beth Gibbons’ lyrics hint at much, but much is left unsaid – and this open-ended approach to writing perfectly matches the soundscape in which they dwell.

4. It Could be Sweet

I mentioned in the intro that this style of music is perhaps the type that actually lasted longest in all the forms of music encompassed by ‘Britpop.’ By that, I mean that while individual songs like Parklife, Common People, or Don’t Look Back in Anger might remain more well known, they didn’t really inspire people to write more music in that sort of vein.

It Could Be Sweet demonstrates the opposite principle at work: this individual track is fairly forgettable in itself – another jazz-inflected piece with sparse accompaniment and open-ended lyrics that, while interesting, rely on your own interpretation. But in terms of influence, this sort of style is style is still to be found in public spaces everywhere – from bars on slow Sunday afternoons, to incidental music on television shows.

This is not a negative criticism of style in general or this track in particular, but it does to me speak of a certain kind of cool, slightly detached mood that music that can easily assimilated into life with coffee table books and minimalist furnishings without upsetting anyone’s feng shui.

5. Wandering Star

Again, taken on its own this song contains both the strengths and weaknesses inherent in this writing-from-the-groove-up approach to songcraft. The disconcertingly insistent bass pattern maintains interest only by being broken – here by a drum break… there by a record scratch… the arrival of an organ. It is a great mood piece, but barely exists as a song.

A lot, then, rides on the lyrical content – which is actually pretty strong.

Please could you stay awhile to share my grief
For its such a lovely day
To have to always feel this way
And the time that I will suffer less
Is when I never have to wake

The minor key atmospherics are the perfect setting for lyrics such as this, and Gibbons’ long, meandering melody has exactly the right air of detachment. Taken literally, the words suggest a quiet desperation bordering on suicidal, but the aural backdrop is much more distantly thoughtful than that. This ‘distance’ reminds me a lot of certain Pink Floyd tracks from the Wish You Were Here/Dark Side of the Moon era, where the chilliness helps to distance you from what are quite stark sentiments (compare this to the audible desperation in Lennon’s Mother, for example).

6. Numb

You might have sensed a little weariness in my writing about the last couple of songs and I’m afraid it’s not going to let up here. Once more, there is nothing inherently wrong with this song as such – it’s a perfectly serviceable slice of thoughtful, jazzy, spacy hip-hop – but the overall effect of listening to this album in its entirety is beginning to have a slightly soporific effect.

Here, a powerful dub bass is allied to a great-sounding hammond organ figure and a compelling drum loop, but the pace is once again mid-paced, and the vocal is pretty much the same kind of thing as we’ve heard on the preceding tracks.

I feel mean-spirited saying this really, as this is the very nature of Portishead – it wouldn’t really be fitting for them to suddenly break out a load of guitars and have a song that sounds like Smashmouth or Pantera or something – but I feel a general ennui about the music settling in now. As I did concluded with the Chemical Brothers, it seems like any one of these songs is actually pretty great, and in the right setting would be amazing, but the setting in question for this feels like it would be in the background of a Serious Conversation: a sort of hip hop Norah Jones.

7. Roads

I’ve been groping towards a little thesis for a couple of songs now as to why this album is making me feel this way – given that I sorta kinda like the tracks individually. I think partly the problem is that I’m now viewing the whole era through these songs and it’s putting me in mind of a kind of smug vacuousness that permeated a lot of thinking at the time.

The period just before 9/11 was marked by a decade of cultural ennui. What seemed like the final triumph of capitalism and secular democracy over the various alternatives (personified in theocracies and the Communist Eastern Bloc) had prompted many people – most famously Fukuyama – to declare ‘the end of history’. This kind of Whiggish extremism postulated that an alliance of tamed capitalism, liberal values and soft socialism were a kind of ultimate end point for politics, and that the increasing rise of supranational bodies like the UN and EU meant an end of wars and a sort of rainbow alliance where creed and colour and history would not burden the world any longer.

As such, a lot of art of the time started to look inward as a response to having few external stimuli to which to actually respond. In film, Fight Club and American Beauty examined a kind of numbing blankness represented by the sterility of IKEA furniture and bland offices that left people with nothing more to question than “do I have an identity any more?” In politics, Clinton and Blair forged a ‘third way’ which was largely rootless – arising from think tanks and the musings of social theorists like Charles Shaar Murray.

Portishead represent a kind of musical third way: nicely interracial. Modern sounding, but based on tasteful sampling of the past. Concerned with the inner emotional world rather than the forces outside. Suitable for a certain kind of bar.

Of course, such navel-gazing was brought to a crashing halt by 9/11. When the clouds of smoke and rubble cleared the truth was revealed: for behind the bland glass facades and promises of the third way was a huge, boiling stew of resentment. History might have been forgotten by world leaders and their allies in academia but not by the people themselves – for they were fuelled by a million resentments stored over centuries on lines of history, class, gender, sexuality and the rest. Whatever the reaction to that September day was, it was never going be artful musings on being lonely. Weirdly, much pop seems to have got even blander in response as the world has descended into great loops of increasing absurdity. Perhaps pop has reverted to the sort of fatuous escapism that is its default setting, after all.

Anyway, that’s by the by. What these songs – this album – reminds me of is the self-indulgence of the time. Instead of looking outward to the world and picking apart its hypocrisies and fatuities, this is music for a generation who were mainly interested in looking inward and taking a sorrowful stroll through their own insecurities.

This is not to doubt that Gibbons (who I assume to be the lyricist) was being sincere about her own feelings, but the fact that these vague musings spoke to such a wide audience tells us, I think, much about the times, in the same way that the Oscars showered on American Beauty do. Nor is it a comment on the music itself, which is often beautiful and imaginative. I guess that really what I’m getting at is that it says nothing to me about my life, as the man put it.

(To get even further off the point, what is perhaps startling is that white pop music has remained in this kind of stasis ever since: the colossi of our times – Adelle and Ed Sheeran – bear the same hallmarks of not having much to say about anything beyond their own vague emotional states. I’m too old to understand grime, but clearly that is where it’s at.)

8. Pedestal

Well after that lengthy diversion into socio-political contextualising, it’s back to the music.

As you’ve hopefully gathered by now, I’m getting a bit antsy about this now. Again, I feel the frustration of quite liking the general ambience of this track while being bothered by a sense of boredom in the context of the album as a whole.

Gibbons wheels out more sadness to the sound of great drum tracks and atmospherics. But now, her breathless stylings are just wearing on my ears.

9. Biscuit

I love biscuits, so I was hoping for great things, but…. well. Try to guess. I’ll wait.

If you said: “atmospherics, enigmatic lyrics, and a big drum beat” then award yourself 5 points and move on to Question B.

10. Glory Box

Based on a sample of Isaac Hayes’ Ike’s Rap II (1973), this is Portishead’s other Really Famous song and perhaps the one lyric that has genuinely stuck in my head since hearing this record:

I’m so tired, of playing
Playing with this bow and arrow
Gonna give my heart away
Leave it to the other girls to play
For I’ve been a temptress too long

Conclusion

Well I’m a bit surprised by how much this started to grate on me. I seem to recall loving this record at the time – I’ve still got the CD – but listening back to it now was a bit of a slog after the first 3 or 4 songs and by the end I was pretty pissed off. The reasons are manifold and I’ve already gone through them at tedious length, but boil down to a general musical and lyrical ennui. At the time, this was praised for its innovative styling, but it’s damnably hard to hear that from today’s perspective. I remarked on it earlier, but perhaps the sheer ubiquity of this kind of music in a certain kind of setting has made it seem more boring than it actually is (or was at the time).

Then again, it’s hard to argue that there’s a diverse sonic pallet to enjoy here. There are no choruses to speak of, just verse after meandering verse. Everything is more or less the same tempo as everything else. The only real musical hooks are actually samples rather than emanating from the band themselves. There no playfulness or humour or insight into the world outside the window; just a series of artful exercises in creating mood.

I haven’t checked, but I’d wager that most of the songs deploy 1 or 2 chords, and I’d guess they’re all in a fairly narrow part of the tonal spectrum. If you told me that every song was in E minor I’d probably believe you.

So, overall then we have is 10 songs that don’t vary much in pitch, tempo, style, or content.

As I’ve said: background music for people who drink or maybe feel a bit sad. Luckily, I think Pulp are up next.

1 Comments on “Portishead: Dummy (1994)”

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