At a time when I was relishing my own ‘dummy’, Portishead released their seminal debut album of the same name. The album would enjoy great critical and commercial acclaim and together with Massive Attack’s equally pioneering album, Blue Lines, that came out in the same year, would pave the way for the iconic 90s sound of trip-hop. Although contemporaries, Portishead took a different direction to the more dance oriented Massive Attack. Dummy incorporates the atmospheric sound of Blue Lines, but also adds elements of jazz and blues to craft more of a low key, ambient sound.
The two key members, Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons, the producer and vocalist respectively, were integral to the success of this album. Having previously worked on soundtrack music, Barrow creates a soundscape through which Gibbons’ haunting vocals effortlessly pierce. The tone created right from the opening track ‘Mysterons’ is eerie and brooding, but most crucially, intriguing. The track aptly creates mystery and invites the listener to delve deeper, and believe me, you are well rewarded for doing so.
One major asset of Gibbons is her versatility; at times her voice is soft, barely more than a whisper, others it is guttural and laden with angst. On ‘Roads’ for instance, she repeats the chorus, “how can it feel…from this moment”, the beauty of the track is in its simplicity. This simplicity is balanced with the instrumentation; the same guitar chord repeats through the entire song, and creates an almost paranoid ambience, fitting perfectly with Gibbons’ introspective lyrics. Meanwhile, on ‘It Could Be Sweet’, the tone is one of pining and fantasy. In the line, “you don’t get something for nothing”, this is especially evident.
Barrow must also certainly be credited as the mastermind behind the album, with his excellent production. He cleverly uses distortion to create various intonations to the vocals, that allude to the deeper emotion embedded within Gibbons’ psyche. The combination allows for a large range of tone; at times she is coy and alluring, while at others, she sounds frustrated and constrained.
Portishead definitely understand the notion that sometimes less is more – the pauses in the lyrics serve to add further weight to her delivery, and it almost allows the track to breathe, giving a clear sense of reflection to her sentiments. A theme present to varying degrees throughout.
One of the standout tracks is the finale, ‘Glory Box’ which, it seems, is the culmination of the personal relationship struggle that Gibbons has been grappling with throughout the album. In the line, “I’ve been a temptress…for too long”, her voice is playful and suggestive which is echoed later with the line “just let me be a woman”. But later, her voice is filled with desperation and yearning, evident in, “give me a reason to love you”. The end comes suddenly without any drawn out fanfare, as if Gibbons is resigning the fate of this relationship, although that fate is unclear. The chorus fades out, bringing to a close a very personal, yet accessible album.
While there are a few notable tracks, what makes this a truly excellent album is its composition, which works so effectively. There are echoes and resonances of other tracks throughout and it all works brilliantly to create one seamless piece of music that will urge you to re-listen. All in all, I cannot fault it, and I cannot recommend this album enough; it deserves to be obligatory listening for any true music fan.