Delayed Reaction: Portishead — Dummy

There are those who say trip-hop is dead.

Trip-hop is one of those delicate genres.  It found its footing in the mid- to late-90s with bands like Lovage and Massive Attack, though one of its main pioneers was the UK outfit Portishead, a rag-tag quartet whose one sole mission was to change the face of music permanently.  Not an easy task, mind you, but they succeeded.

Nowadays, the name ‘Portishead’ conjures up many things when mentioned: the aural image of Beth Gibbons’ signature melancholy quiver, Geoff Barrow’s distant yet inviting guitar riffs, and Adrien Utley’s flawless production techniques (he became an official member of the band after Dummy was released).  Amongst diehard fans, there is an ongoing debate over who is the pivotal act responsible for the trip-hop movement: Portishead or Massive Attack.  Obviously, one cannot accurately credit one band or another for the absolute synthesis of such an important and influential genre; a group effort on behalf of all artists and bands preaching such a style is ultimately accountable for the formation and progress of trip-hop, though there are many that argue that Portishead set the precedent for modern (or, what is now referred to as “classic”) trip-hop.  Truthfully, there is no way that anyone—even scholarly musician folk—can trace the absolute roots of such a genre back to one outfit.  That’s the way history works—even when it comes to something as seemingly trivial as music: there is no one outright “inventor” of trip-hop; it was something that came about out of the veritable “big bang” that occurred as late-80s mentality collided with the plethora of early-90s technology and stylistic ambiguity. Still, Portishead seems to lead the pack when it comes to this kind of music, and Dummy was the minor-magnum opus of a debut that prevailed.

When looking at this kind of music from a chronological, historical point of view, it is clear that Massive Attach’s Blue Lines—an excellent album, mind you—came some three years or so before Dummy, thus solidifying a place in history as perhaps the first truly trip-hop album.  However, where Blue Lines lacked in tangible, empathetic, humane experience, Dummy picks up the slack.  Don’t get me wrong; I love Blue Lines.  It’s one of my favorite albums of all time (and those who are familiar with this column will remember a similar piece on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine), and I have nothing bad to say about it.  However, with the introduction of Portishead three years later, and their fantastic debut Dummy (which came out the same year as Massive Attack’s formidable follow-up, Protection) came a new era in regards to the burgeoning genre of trip-hop.

Blue Lines feeds almost mercilessly on the notion that it is just what it appears to be: something new; and, at times, it does so in an almost terrifying fashion. To someone who didn’t grow up listening to Massive Attack, hearing their first album is somewhat of an unnerving experience, mostly because, at the time, the style was so palpably foreign that a whole mess of people had trouble absorbing and accessing the album’s esoteric, almost avant-garde nature.  Again, let me reiterate that I hold nothing but the highest regard for Blue Lines, but I’m trying to make a point here.  And I will get to it, I swear.

When Dummy, Portishead’s debut, came out in 1994 (just around the time that Massive Attack’s sophomore effort, Protection was released), it altered things drastically. Sure, Protection boasted guest vocals from Tracey Thorn (of Everything But The Girl fame) and a solid cover of The Doors’ seminal hit “Light My Fire”, yet it still carried with it an air of disjointedness, one that is often felt within smaller outfits trying to push the envelope. And although Massive Attack succeeded in not only shaping the genre of trip-hop, but also progressed it, there still were very noticeable gaps within the composition and execution of several of the album’s stellar tracks that left the listener wanting more.  Massive Attack was just still two British dudes writing and performing killer arrangements that basically followed the unsaid rubric of successful trip-hop. Portishead brought something new to the table: unity.

I’ve only had the privilege of seeing Portishead live one time, back in 2011, when they surprised the American and Canadian public with a rather impulsive and inclusive tour three years after their latest LP had been released (I believe they toured Europe directly following the released of that album, though their solitary US date that time around was one singular appearance at the Coachella festival that year).  I have a good friend who lives in Vermont, and it just so happened that I would be up in his neck of the woods around their Montreal date in early October 2011, so we trekked up to Canada to watch the band perform at a venue shaped by a pier jutting out into the St. Lawrence River.

The show, of course, was incredible, and not only did I get to cross a band off of my “bands I need to see before I die” bucket list, I got to witness, first-hand, the kind of remarkable cooperation and true compassion exhibited between a group of truly thoughtful and supportive musicians that is all too rare in this day and age.  Seeing how this band—seventeen years after their debut—still worked effortlessly with each other to optimize the audience’s collective experience, was breathtaking. It was suddenly very clear to me that this is how Portishead interacts constantly, and that this was how they have always been.  This was the missing link.

Looking back on Portishead’s somewhat thin yet impressive catalog, this sort of unconscious congeniality is staggeringly apparent throughout their work.  Even though their third LP—aptly titled Third—came ten years after their eponymous sophomore album, there is still a sense of tangible camaraderie, even as their style drastically evolved over time.

This is what sets Dummy apart from early Massive Attack albums. Massive Attack is made up of two very innovative, very talented men that even to this day continue to surprise and astound listeners.  Their audible repartee is the model of perfection—and inherent envy—amongst duos of modern producers.  However, it just comes down to simple brass tacks: Portishead as a band is just more well rounded.

It never hurts to have a female vocalist. Even bands that don’t have one in their lineup recruit such vocalists to enhance certain pieces and, effectively, broaden their audience. Portishead is lucky enough to have one at the helm: Beth Gibbons’ quavering and eerily satisfying vocals drive the band’s music forward with beautifully unsettling fortitude. At the same time, Geoff Barrow’s dreamy, fragmented guitar riffs matched with Adrien Utley’s forceful and pungent production create an oily, Monet-esque audible landscape for Gibbons’ voice to playfully and cohesively echo amongst. Up close—i.e., taken as separate parts—these three elements can possibly come off as sloppy; though when carefully integrated—and “seen from a distance”—they’re all remarkably fluid and entrancing.

This is where Portishead wins: their songs emit an attitude of concrete integrity and grace, which puts them in the forefront (at least in my mind) in terms of originality and prowess, especially in regards to the volatile genre of trip-hop.

I could go on and on about just about any song or album of Portishead’s (though there are only a few to speak of), but Dummy is what I want to focus on with this piece.  As I mentioned before, Dummy is Portishead’s debut full-length album, and upon the release of this album, they managed to shatter any pre-conceived notion of how trip-hop was supposed to sound. Sure, the sampling is there, as is the inevitable record scratching, the droning bass, and the downbeat percussion.  But Portishead really brought so much life to the party. I can’t possibly discredit any particular member of the band, yet it is my strong belief that Beth Gibbons is the reason modern trip-hop is the way it is (or was the way it was, because, let’s face it, the genre is pretty much toast in the current scheme of things…I smell a comeback though). A constant vocal talent sets a precedent when it comes to bands: it allows for varying degrees of comfort, of anticipation, of satisfaction. Truthfully, Portishead’s instrumentation speaks far more to the elemental construction of actual trip-hop, yet it is Gibbons who really takes it to the next level. Portishead could’ve done just as well—perhaps—as an instrumental outfit, and in doing so they would have stayed within the confines the genre itself provides; Gibbons is what sets them apart.  She adds an incontrovertible sense of enigmatic concentricity that has propelled Portishead to idyllic, almost heroic status.

Let’s take the album track by track. The first track, “Mysterons” begins as many trip-hop tracks do: with droopy, synthesized minor intervals and snickering percussion beneath a stellar set of soulful vocals that tease the ear into the startlingly bright refrain. Upon first listen, “Mysterons” appears to lack dimension, yet upon multiple encounters, one is able to find new and exciting aspects sneakily accented in the droning synthetic rhythm and Theremin-like wailing that tiptoes gently above the central orchestration.  From there, the narrative blooms into the prickly syncopation of “Sour Times”, a much more lyrical piece heralding a sort of celebration of cynicism, whose message echoes throughout the rest of the album.

“Strangers” comes next, much more akin to the genre’s hip-hop roots in terms of rhythm, as repetitive guitar chords, percussion, and distorted vocals double-dutch with their negative (and sometimes positive) counterparts. “It Could Be Sweet” tickles our softer side, with perhaps the most straightforward, heartfelt lyrics/vocals on the album, and the kind of percussion you might hear on a demo song on an electric keyboard.

In turn, “It Could Be Sweet” is then followed by Dummy’s perhaps most abrasive track, “Wandering Star”, a drilling, significantly dark lament acting as the flame to the proverbial moth we, as listeners, are drawn to. “Wandering Star” is an astounding piece of music; one that illustrates dread and terror through sound so perceptibly, it sends shivers down my spine.

“It’s A Fire” is another seemingly easy-going, mellow track that follows “Wandering Star,” though despite its mild and cautiously easy-going manner, it tells a melancholy tale of unshakable doubt.  “Numb” follows closely behind—it’s another thumping, organ- and sample-driven descent into uncertainty (cheery album, huh?), followed closely by the epic “Roads.”

For this song, I have to start a new paragraph.

“Roads” is one of those rare, beautiful songs that come along once, maybe twice a lifetime, if you’re lucky. I was lucky enough to see them perform it live, and it literally changed me. I honestly felt like it may have altered my molecular structure, if that makes any sense.  It’s a truly beautiful piece. As with the rest of the album, the instrumentation (especially at the beginning) is terribly simple, and strangely hypnotic.  It starts with a basic, low-end reverberated melody, of which I am not absolutely sure what the origin is (it sounds synthy, but it may be distorted guitar, or bass…I really don’t know…it sounds amazing on headphones, because the reverb bounces between the ears). After a few measures, Gibbons’ voice and some very basic, light percussion interrupt the drone. The melodic structure of the vocal verse is incredible, and as it fades, you think it may be over just as quickly as it began.  Yet, it continues, with spacey guitar riffs diligently punctuating the verse just as delicate strings begin to creep up in the background.  As the third verse begins, the strings envelope Gibbons’ vocals, and the riffs become more stated, almost as if she is arguing with the guitar itself.  The strings finally swell through the first half of the bridge, in the same effect a summer shower overwhelms a windshield, and, just as suddenly as it began, it’s over, as Gibbons coaxes us out of the storm, gently leaving us right where we began… Yet at the same time, we are so far away.


The following two songs, “Pedestal” and “Biscuit” both toy with gallant juxtaposition, pairing harsh rhythmic structures and discerning harmonic crescendo with pleading vocal melodies, creating a sort of schism between the almost robotic nature of the orchestration and Gibbons’ inherent urgency (this is especially evident in “Biscuit,” in which Gibbons’ vocals are heavily distorted in the refrain in an effort to emulate inner chaos). The mind-bending simplicity of “Glory Box” closes out the album, in which Gibbons bares perhaps her truest self, begging, ‘give me a reason to love you/give me a reason to be a woman/I just wanna be a woman’. Similarly, Barrow’s guitar melts into a shivering, blues-like honesty, hardly affording any sort of distortion, and again, it’s almost as if the two melodies are speaking to each other. As the song fades away, Gibbons’ refrain repeats itself, perhaps out of victory, but more likely, it’s out of defeat; trapped in some sort of purgatory in which those imploring words must be echoed, over and over, through eternity.

Most of the posts I have done in this series have to do with older albums that I have only recently discovered, or those I have encountered in the past and have only just began to really appreciate…but I think I may start to divert from that path. This is an album that I have known and loved for years and years, and will continue to love in the years to come.  Honestly, I think my favorite Portishead album isn’t even this one; that honor probably belongs to their self-titled 1997 sophomore album, Portishead.  (Seriously, that one’s got some fucking amazing tracks on it…”Cowboys”, “All Mine”, “Humming”, “Only You”).  All things considered, however, I chose Dummy to write about, because this album changed things. It fucked shit up. People heard Dummy and didn’t know what to do with it. It was the birth of a band, nay, the birth of a movement. I’m not just talking about trip-hop here, which in my opinion is one of those fleeting genres that nowadays is so dated and time-specific (like disco), that all that modern musicians can do to incorporate it into modern music is draw some sort of influence out of it (personally I think that a trip-hop revival is imminent, but that’s beside the point). I’m talking about an actual emotional connection with music.

Portishead made sad music cool again, and they did it with style.  This was before Bright Eyes, before Elliott Smith (well, maybe the same-ish time as him), before fucking Xiu Xiu. Portishead made it OK to feel like shit. Most importantly, they did it in a beautiful way.  They made you feel what they were feeling, and it was awesome.

I feel like people forget how expressive music can be. Granted, not everyone is a huge nerd like me, and so they don’t listen to music constantly to fit their mood, or the weather, or the landscape, or anything.  For some people, it’s just there: background noise, commercial jingles, the shit playing at Target while you’re shopping for a new garlic press…it’s just there.  And that’s totally valid.  But even for those people, there’s always some aspect of music nagging at their insides, yearning for them to feel nostalgic, or happy, or angry or ANYTHING.  It’s perhaps the most human form of expression out there (there are many scholars that believe we had music before any sort of language), and yet so many people seem to ignore it.

I don’t want to get all soapbox-y on y’all, but what happened to listening to (and singing along with) a really sad song or two when you felt like crap, just so you felt like someone—even it was some musician you’ve never met—knew what you were going through? I know I’ve listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue in the dark several times on such occasions, and I honestly feel better for it. Our brains crave empathy, and most of the time, they crave music too. Jeff Buckley sure doesn’t have all the answers to life’s shitty curveballs, but I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch if listening to “Last Goodbye” after being dumped hasn’t made me feel a million times better.

These musicians write songs for us.  Sure, it’s great creative release for them, but ultimately, we’re the ones buying the records, and they want us to connect with their work. In a world full of sitcoms and cat videos and bubbly TV commercials soundtracked by the same regurgitated ukulele and glockenspiel riffs played over and over again, it’s like we forgot how to feel actual emotion. The same shit was happening in the post-Reagan 90s.

Let’s call it a comeback. Do yourself a favor and feel something. Get drunk and sing along with something, because music can help. It really can. Jeff Buckley can help. Portishead can help. I’m living proof. Besides, what good is a Dummy if you can’t beat it up sometimes?