A Week With… 6. Portishead – Dummy

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The first thing that strikes me is how normal it sounds now. We’ve had ‘Third’, ‘Mezzanine’ and ‘The Drift’ since this album first appeared. What once seemed like claustrophobic malevolence on a whole new scale is now more likely to be regarded as simply some nifty production. Which, let’s not be unduly revisionist here, this album has in spades. ‘Dummy’ is still a wonderful listen and it has retained the power to be genuinely emotionally affecting. When that head rattling beat drops out briefly during ‘Strangers’ and you hear tiny elements of the horn refrain and get a real-time sense of the artist pausing for thought it still sounds just as fresh and, frankly, clever as it did the best part of sixteen years ago. Whether my critical faculties were sufficiently honed back then to notice the potential connotations of certain breakdowns, I can’t really say, but listening now it does feel like an album that has been stapled onto my life and which has essentially always been there.

Portishead-Dummy

It Could Be Sweet’ was typical, late-night This Life fare, and rewatching the whole lot recently I’ve noticed this album popping up more than most. It was how, for a couple of years at least, ‘Dummy’ came to be defined. It was the tasteful, trendy dinner-party album of choice. It was lauded all over the music press from the exuberant under-achievers at Melody Maker through to the professionally pensive types who wrote broadsheet reviews in the mid-nineties. Even now, this strikes me as slightly strange because I also remember some of the confusion that greeted this album. A regularly offered-up comment from Geoff Barrow perhaps summarises this most succinctly. “At the time, some people took ‘Dummy’ back to Woolworths because it had scratches on it – everyone thought that was odd when they first heard it.”

The fact that ‘Dummy’ didn’t entirely fit was what made it great. DJ Shadow’s ‘Entroducing’ was still a couple of years away and the UK was caught somewhere between Suede and Oasis as Portishead first asserted themselves as part of the music scene. We were four months on from the moment when Kurt Cobain famously proved that the lyrics to ‘Come As You Are’ truly were a lie and the emphasis was on pretty much anything lively. By the time their second album, ‘Portishead’, appeared, they were on the receiving end of some criticism for still sounding like, well, Portishead. A churlish response to a quite beautiful set of songs, surely? Ultimately, yes, but so utterly omnipresent had ‘Dummy’ become that almost everybody felt like they knew the band’s ‘sound’ by this point and so, an album that is the equal of this wonderful debut, was not quite as steeped in praise as it should have been. The subsequent ‘Roseland NYC Live’ record cast these songs on a grander scale and is an essential album in my book, containing in ‘Roads’ one of the finest examples of recorded silence I think I’ve ever heard. You’ll know what I mean next time you play it.

Speaking of ‘Roads’, there was no tailing off of quality on the second side of ‘Dummy’. ‘Numb’ continued the impressive run of intense, hard-edged beat-laden wails, while ‘Roads’ pushed an awful lot of people towards tears during their weaker moments. It is a truly classic song and a fine example of a band knowing when to go all-out and when to keep things very simple. The added strings and rippling guitar for the second verse are masterfully understated and the way in which the song never seems more than a second or two away from returning to the isolation of the stark and bristling piano refrain ensures a fine balance between hope and despair. It’s a song that sounds mesmerising taken on its own, but it’s absolutely flooring in the context of the rest of the record.

Pedestal’ is a track I feel I know less well than the rest of the record. Presumably this has something to do with it following the exceptional ‘Roads’ and my inability to move on immediately from that particular piece of music. Both ‘Pedestal’ and ‘Biscuit’ feature what might be described as intoxicated beats slurring their way across the tracks. This is emphasised on the latter of those two tracks by the repeated and slowed refrain, ‘I’ll never fall in love again’ sinking gradually into the music. Again, I suspect my mild amnesia regarding this small part of the album is further enhanced by the way it ends. Ok, so ‘Glory Box’ became the Portishead snapshot that got a bunk-up with every compilation in the land until sometime in the middle of 1996 and you heard it pretty much everywhere. Doesn’t stop it being great though, does it? With the benefit of time having passed it now sounds, quite simply, like a wonderfully dark soul song. As with so much of this record, it has its roots firmly planted in the smoulderingly wounded deep soul sounds of the late sixties and seventies. Forget the fondness for cleverly manipulated beats and intricately sewn samples and you’re left with a new take on old soul. And it’s pretty much perfect.

Things have never been simple when it comes to Portishead and writing from February 2010, a time when we all know that the band are even less prolific than Massive Attack, it’s still a little odd to think that there have only been two further studio albums since this phenomenal debut. ‘Third’ avoided all of the criticisms levelled at their second album by sounding unlike anything you’d actually heard before, bar industrial drilling equipment and nightmares, and was another fine addition to their minimal output. Hearing ‘Dummy’ again this week has been a real pleasure and it makes for an interesting listen shorn of all of the media associations it carried with it for so long.

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