Portishead - Dummy
THERE are many reasons to love…
IN THIS PHOTO: Portishead/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Whitton/NME
the fantastic Dummy by Portishead. The album turns twenty-five later in the month and it is a perfect opportunity to revisit this masterpiece – or discover it for the first time if you are new to Portishead. The songs on the record are brilliant and, depending on which you favour, you cannot deny the entire body of work is sublime. I would urge people to buy Dummy on vinyl because it sounds so good on that format. The album is the debut from Bristol’s Portishead and followed from their E.P., Numb. Many might trace the roots of Trip-Hop to other parts of the world but, by 1994, it was clear that the epicentre and focus of Trip-Hop was in Bristol. Portishead were well-known and building a local reputation before they unveiled their debut album but few could have predicted the sheer brilliance and invention of Dummy. From the opening of Mysterons, you are in this other world. The beats scuffle and shift whilst Beth Gibbons’ voice creates this intoxicating allure. There are theremin-like notes and a beguiling mood that draws you in. Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley have only released three albums as Portishead but, to many, their golden moment happened right at the start. To be fair, each of their three albums are world-class but I would agree with that sentiment. Maybe it’s because 1994 was such a busy, productive and eclectic year; perhaps there was something in the air back then!
Although 1994 did bring us so many iconic albums, Portishead sort of stood on their own. It was playing away from the Britpop scene and, to me, was a lot cooler than what was being produced by Oasis and Blur. It is amazing looking back at that year and realising just how many phenomenal records were released! Whilst other British Trip-Hop pioneers like Tricky would go on to release staggering albums – 1995’s Maxinquaye is one of the best of the decade – Portishead sort of led the way. It is the stunning vocals of Gibbons and the incredible sounds/invention from Utley and Barrow that makes the musical blend so arresting and wondrous. Numb, Sour Times and Glory Box were released as singles and each of them sounds completely overwhelming and unique today! It is hard to say just how influential Dummy is but I can hear strands in a lot of music today. It is clear Portishead have been influential but Dummy was such an earthquake. I listen to it now and am still taken aback when I hear the songs. Of course, reviews for Dummy in 1994 were positive but there has been a lot of retrospective passion. In this Pitchfork review, they talked about the originality of Dummy and how the combination of cinematic sounds and Beth Gibbons’ voice led to this rich and astonishing album:
“But Dummy is too idiosyncratic to feel like a calculated response to its predecessors. Its obsessions are too specific, and too doggedly pursued: the spy-movie twang of the guitars, the ripple of the Hammond organs and Leslie cabinets—if anything, its vintage signifiers feel out of step with that era’s rush of pre-millennium tension. Bristol’s junglists were carving new routes to the future in every chopped-up breakbeat, while Portishead were drizzling on muted trumpet solos like so much curdled milk. Where most of the decade’s cutting-edge electronic music was zealous about its agenda, Dummy pledged allegiance only to a mood”.
“They favor sounds imprinted with a host of associations, many of them filmic. Utley’s riffs come straight from John Barry’s James Bond theme; the woozy sine waves of “Mysterons” echo sci-fi soundtracks like The Day the Earth Stood Still; and “Sour Times” loops an extended sample of Lalo Schifrin’s music for Mission: Impossible. Their cinematic inclinations are borne out in the fact that they made an actual short film, To Kill a Dead Man, before the album itself. The 10-minute, black-and-white film is not particularly consequential, but it is notable for the way it visually remixes many of the same influences that make the album feel so instantly familiar. Fortunately, they proved to be far more adept at translating those moods and devices into music.
This air was the medium through which Gibbons’ voice soared. Would Portishead have been one-tenth the band they turned out to be had Barrow and Utley contented themselves with instrumentals, or hired session singers to lend a soulful patina at freelance rates? Not on your life. Gibbons’ voice is the center of the music; she elevates the recordings from tracks to songs, from mere head-nodders to forlorn lullabies”.
This BBC review was also full of praise for Dummy and talked about how similar-sounding acts (to Portishead) came and went but none could match the band’s template:
“Imitators have come and gone, but no act has reproduced the disquieting magnificence conjured here except Portishead themselves. The band’s next album, an eponymous effort of 1997, distanced them from the coffee tables that (wholly unexpectedly) had made room for Dummy; to some it’s a superior listen, though a lot colder and harder than its predecessor. And their overdue comeback of 2008, Third, embraced krautrock motifs to take an established sound into a new dimension. But to many, Dummy is the group’s defining work – and even if you disagree with that, what can’t be doubted is that this is one of the greatest debuts of the 1990s”.
There are some really great articles that talk about the influence of Dummy but, from some of the new Electronic acts to artists like Kanye West, it is obvious Portishead’s debut has resonated. Whilst new Electronic genres have formed and artists are mixing all sorts of sounds, there is nothing in the world right now like Dummy. Third arrived in 2008 and I wonder whether we will get a fourth album from the group. I definitely think there is a gap and so many people would welcome their return. I do think the world needs the magic only Portishead can provide. Some ask whether Portishead’s popularity killed Trip-Hop or took it in strange directions. It is clear that Portishead transformed the scene and brought Trip-Hop the masses. They were so much more than that. Listen to Dummy closely and it bursts with life and visions. It sounds so accomplished and detailed yet there is a sense of freedom and openness. Maybe that is just my interpretation but, unlike some albums from 1994, Dummy is not necessarily reserved to a particular time and place. If you need more convincing regarding Dummy’s genius and legacy, this AllMusic review states how Portishead managed to crack into America – uniting audiences and breaking barriers:
“The chilling atmospheres conjured by Adrian Utley's excellent guitar work and Barrow's turntables and keyboards prove the perfect foil for Gibbons, who balances sultriness and melancholia in equal measure. Occasionally reminiscent of a torchier version of Sade, Gibbons provides a clear focus for these songs, with Barrow and company behind her laying down one of the best full-length productions ever heard in the dance world.
Where previous acts like Massive Attack had attracted dance heads in the main, Portishead crossed over to an American, alternative audience, connecting with the legion of angst-ridden indie fans as well. Better than any album before it, Dummy merged the pinpoint-precise productions of the dance world with pop hallmarks like great songwriting and excellent vocal performances”.
When Dummy turns twenty-five on 22nd August, I think a lot of new people will discover this gem. I mentioned how Dummy still sounds fresh but, also, it reveals new layers and things that you might have missed. It is a true masterpiece and one of the finest albums of the 1990s. If you can get a copy on vinyl then do because it sounds utterly incredible and immersive. It may be twenty-five years old but, from the very first note to the last, Dummy sounds alive, timeless and…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images