Twenty Years Later: Portishead’s Dummy

Twenty years after its release, Portishead’s Dummy still remains the fringe soundtrack for America’s misanthropic youth….

by: Diana Grindea

The first time my novice ears heard the seductive lure of Beth Gibbons voice I was crammed in a closet, cloaked in the glow of black lights. This makeshift fortress was where my partner-in-crime and I went to exploit the temptations of adolescence. Each week we would head to the New York mecca of music locales, St. Marks Street, and return with a newly imported CD. The grittier and more obscure the band was, the more successful we deemed our trek into the then nefarious Concrete Jungle. We would rush home, settle into our psychedelic portal and listen to the album on repeat, welcoming the A.M. hours like chain-smoking vampires. After experiencing Portishead’s brilliant breakout album Dummy I was immobilized. I felt as if I was carrying the torment of every leading lady of every noir film ever created. If this album was my doorway to the torrid tangents of my imagination, it was quite possible I would not be able to function in daylight again.

Spawned out of Bristol, UK, Portishead is composed of singer Beth Gibbons, instrumentalists Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley and engineer Dave McDonald. Portishead launched their debut in the late summer of ‘94, elevating the genre of trip-hop in the UK from underground anonymity to critical acclaim. Not quite reaching the same commercial success across the pond, Dummy still quickly became the fringe soundtrack for America’s misanthropic youth. Capturing a rawness that borders on despair, Gibbons lyrics encapsulate the myriad emotions of a lost generation too numb to speak for themselves. Listening to this album is transcendental. This is not an album you play in the background while making dinner. It should only be shared with someone who strives for personal enlightenment through music as much as you do, or who you plan on losing yourself to while fucking. For Dummy pilots listeners on an existential journey where all truths are questioned and new boundaries are imposed.

The album unveils with “Mysterons,” a dark, unapologetic presence that continues to weave itself throughout every track in Dummy. While the magnetic brooding of Gibbons words provoke on their own in this opening track, the eery instrumental solos meticulously stationed throughout leave listeners unsettled. Geoff Barrow’s professional repertoire as a DJ, producer and composer are apparent in the musical prowess showcased in this song. Collaborations with trip-hop greats Massive Attack and Tricky surely played an influence on his musical arrangements, yet somehow this album spawns something so unique it has no resemblance to anything ever heard before; and has yet to be replicated since.

The energy level shifts slightly with “Sour Times.” The songs sentiment remains tortured, but the subtle surf rock guitar riff and hypnotic sirens donate an unexpected uplifting presence, making it the perfect single to unleash on the radio waves. Blasted across clubs internationally, “Sour Times” reached the masses in a myriad of remixed versions and disguised the avant garde as mainstream. Unless of course you caught the music video on MTV’s late night show AMP. The video for “Sour Times” is a snapshot from Portishead’s short film To Kill A Dead Man, which is the embodiment of experimental cinematography. Meant to mirror a 1970’s British spy film, the plot unfolds through a collage of film stills that allude more to a surrealist Salvador Dalí painting than a nod to the spy genre. Regardless, Gibbons is just as bewitching visually as the scorned lover, making the video a perfect accompaniment to her provocative vocals on this track.

Delivering the torn-psyche of an independent woman who still desires to be loved and part of something bigger, the song “Glory Box” captures the internal dilemma of most progressive single women: How do we govern between the advantages of personal freedom and our innate longing for intimacy? After all, always playing the temptress can get tiring. The songs title has two vastly polar interpretations. The first being the literal meaning of “Glory Box,” a chest used to collect traditional garments and linens protectively stored in anticipation of marriage. The second alludes to the salacious nickname of a part of the women’s anatomy. Whichever meaning inspired this closing track, the mood set is one of sexual pining coupled with uncertainty. Cleverly sampling Isaac Hayes “Ike’s Rap II” and the melody from the TV series, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Portishead transports listeners to a 1950’s after hours jazz club where secrets breed and lust is spawned.

In the twenty-years since their debut, Portishead has released two more solid albums and a live recorded performance at Roseland Ballroom in NYC, producing many tracks with their signature beauty and angst. Yet, all three fall short of offering the same cohesive strength as Dummy. Plagued by the same quest as countless artists, Portishead has strived to recreate the intense magnitude of a stellar debut album while remaining relevant and pursuing innovation. While their eponymous second album, Portishead, showcased a jarring take on their sound, their live album at Roseland weaved in a string orchestra. The follow-up album, Third featured their drum and bass roots while also treading on futurism, but true fans will attest to the fact that Dummy is still Portishead’s mecca.

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