Portishead: Dummy (Go! Beat, 1994)
Listening to Portishead’s Dummy over 20 years after its first release, and I suppose the main dichotomy between it and the great times its sound tracked is how sad it is. Beth Gibbons’ vocals are often captivating but sorrowful and are accompanied by sparse sound-scapes that are often as bleak as the lyrics and vocals. I first heard Dummy in its entirety in early 1995 and it became one of my pivotal most played albums of that year. It had little in common with the late period grunge or Brit-Pop that was vying for my attention; this was a classy offering that put me more in mind of John Barry’s James Bond soundtracks than a night at The Good Mixer.
But Dummy wasn’t about nostalgia or (God forbid) kitsch. There is an obvious Barry influence here, and that is all to the good as Barry’s compositions were often sublime evocative pieces that were as tender as they were brassily exciting (there is also a canny sample from fellow ‘60s spy thriller composer Lalo Shiffrin). But there that older influence is filtered through the ear of other influences such as the Hip Hop which was front man Geoff Barrow’s big interest. The influence of Hip-Hop, Dub and Soul is quite evidently there, and Gibbons’ vocals are in the emotive tradition of many Blues and Jazz greats. When Gibbons sings “just let me be a woman”, on ‘Glory Box’, she evokes the spirit of Billie Holliday. It’s an understated but powerful vocal. Surrounded by mysterious spy-fi guitars and looped drum beats, Dummy could end up sounding impersonal, but Gibbons was their trump card in that respect; she makes it all so raw and emotional it almost goes too far the other way. Portishead were often classed as ‘Trip Hop’, and indeed helped popularise the genre, but they were so much like a lot of other styles, that to categorise them is more difficult than surrendering to their sound and just joyfully listening.
In many ways the album makes more sense to my older ears, as there weren’t as many ‘Sour Times’ in my twenties. But Dummy never sounds like a truly bitter record; it skirts away from the truly bleak by virtue of a sort of tender romanticism. There’s even a touch of the Gothic, with a suggestion of triumphantly returning from heartbreak. Dummy sounds like the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist (music videos and one short film aside), but surely the point is that all good albums play a part in sound-tracking our own lives, and Dummy has served me well in that respect. On listening to it again, after quite a long time, I’m reminded why I embraced its melancholy but yearning beauty in the first place.
Portishead (Go!, 1997)
Third (Island, 2008)