[29 September 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Portugal’s the Gift is a big deal in their home country and in parts of Europe. Their fifth released and latest album, Explode, which is also their first album in five years, was released in March in Portugal, and it immediately went right to the top of the nation’s charts and holed up in the Top 10 for more than 10 weeks. In Europe, the band has taken the stage with the likes of Arcade Fire, Bloc Party and Klaxons, and they’ve won an MTV Europe award for being the best Portuguese act in 2005. I read a post on the Tasty Ears blog out of Vancouver, Canada, when I was doing some reading up on the group, and the blogger made the comment that the Gift are to Portugal as the Tragically Hip was to Canada for a large swath of the 1990s: a nation’s band. That’s an apt comment, as the group has moved units of their albums in the tens of thousands – not bad for a largely regional band, and one that has been largely DIY throughout their 17 years of existence; DIY in the sense that they finance their own recordings and lack any traditional management.
However, things are changing as the Gift is setting their sights on American shores with Explode, though this isn’t the first time they’ve ventured overseas—in 2003, they were the opening band of a U.S. tour with the Flaming Lips. There’s a sense with Explode that it is meant to be a fortunes game changer for the band in North America, and the band members have roped in some serious artillery to beef up their sound and image. None other than Ken Nelson has produced the album, a guy that’s worked magic for another European band that you might have heard of: Coldplay. For the accompanying video for the album’s first single, “Made for You”, the band hired actors Lukas Haas (probably most famous as being the child star of the 1985 Harrison Ford vehicle Witness) and Isabel Lucas (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) to ape playing along to the song, ostensibly pretending that they are the Gift—a move, it would seem, to make the band much more palpable to U.S. audiences. Then there’s the colourful and striking cover art, which was lavishly photographed (along with the band photos in the insert) at the annual spring Holi festival in India. It appears that no expense was spared to make Explode a big commercial success outside of the Portuguese music community.
The Gift, as an entity, have a kind of not-quite psychedelic, yet vividly textured keyboard-driven sound that is at times reminiscent of the Polyphonic Spree, but also recalls the bombastic moments of such ‘70s Europop acts as Queen and ABBA. However, their resulting album is a bit of a tepid affair; Explode barely does. The whole album is coated with a glossy arena rock production that sounds flat and uninspiring, if not downright cheesy, and does nothing to bolster the fact that Explode doesn’t really offer much in the way of earworm-like hooks. The music is actually reflected in the art of the band members that accompanies the album: flecks of paint that are thrown at the band in an almost Jackson Pollock splatter. It’s as though the Gift just threw a bunch of ideas at a wall, hoping that anything would stick. Obviously, the five year layoff between albums didn’t seem to do very much to inspire the group.
The prime offender is the more than 12-minute long “The Singles”, which is almost a spiritual cousin to the similarly long “Siberian Breaks” by MGMT, a song that careens widely all over the place stylistically, shifting gears between different movements, before quite literally stopping—as though the song had run out of gas. It seems apparent that this is meant to be the band’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” moment, but the song just simply overreaches itself. However, that’s not the only place where the group reaches for epic territory: there’s the eight-and-a-half minute synth ballad “Always Better If You Wait for the Sunrise”, which sounds like the sort of thing that a-ha could have tossed off in their sleep. It’s actually not quite bad, but it could have been pared down without losing its triumphant effect. Elsewhere, “RGB” offers an astounding guitar hook at the beginning of the track, but the band doesn’t really know what to do with it—it never blossoms into a full chorus—which is too bad as it really stands out and could have been an anthemic opening single that reached to the back of the bleachers. Album opener “Let It Be By Me” is simply a round that goes around in circles with extra effects and instruments being added layer by layer for five minutes, before breaking down and collapsing on itself.
Another aspect that is rather lacking—and I hesitate to bring this up, because English is probably not the group members’ mother tongue—are the lyrics. In fact, it seems as though the Gift spent time examining the gibberish of Jon Anderson’s work on Tales of Topographic Oceans, as you get almost nonsensical lines such as “It’s just a paper cut and my head is now so strong / I’m not afraid anymore” on “The Singles” and “Far seas, mountains above, stay strong now / Far fears, conquer the world, stay strong now” on “Aquatica”. If you find yourself saying “say what?” while parsing the lyric sheet, well, you’ll have a good reason: the words are so opaque that it’s clear they’re just meaningless phrases meant to be sung against the arc of the music. There are moments where there’s an apparent thread that runs through the album’s lyrics in a mock concept: the word “explode” makes an appearance throughout a few songs, and there’s some kind of bizarre gun imagery that runs through “The Singles” and “RGB”, but what it all means doesn’t add up to much. It’s not surprising then that the album’s most successful moment is the ballad “Primavera”—which is sung in Portuguese, meaning that most American listeners won’t be cringing at what’s being sung. The song also has an exotic quality to it, even if it sounds a little like soft-core Depeche Mode, and makes you wonder how much better Explode would have been if the band just stuck to their strong suit of signing in their native language.
“Primavera” also is a primary example of the Gift’s main strength: they tend to be the most effective in their quietest moments. In fact, once you get into the middle third of the album after “The Singles”, Explode gets a little on the lavish side, which is the most appealing side that the band has to offer. “Aquatica” is sung by main singer Sonia Tavares in an almost hushed Björk glacial tone, and it is among the album’s few standouts. Similarly, “Suit Full of Colours” is also an instance of the band keeping things muted and simple, at least during the song’s first half before it blossoms into a harp-plucked, rousing mid-tempo number of the sort that something like Coldplay would excel at. There’s also a lovely piano ballad in the form of “The Mother of My Mother”, which is kept sparse and bare, but alas it is relegated to bonus track status on the deluxe edition of the record.
Yes, there are two editions of Explode being released: a standard edition with 11 songs, and a deluxe edition that is presented as something of a small coffee table book, and it contains that aforementioned extra song (“The Mother of My Mother”—which makes you wonder why the band didn’t call the song “Grandmother”) as well as a DVD that features a 32-and-a-half minute making of the album documentary and a more than two minute long montage of band photos against music. The documentary—mostly in Portuguese with English subtitles—is pretty standard stuff, as it covers the recording of a few songs, the band’s journey to India (which is beautiful just for the scenery) and the making of the “Made for You” video. The documentary comes across as being a bit superficial as there really isn’t much depth: you get band members like guitarist Miguel Ribeiro gushing that the record is “an important new chapter, one that makes sense right now”, and band members congratulating their performance in the studio with a great deal of thumbs-ups and statements to each other like, “Yeah, that’s good”. You get no sense of the DIY aspect of the group’s upbringing, or anything about their impact in the European community. Basically, it’s nice if you’re a fan and want to see a bunch of musicians playing around with effects pedals in the studio, but, for most people, you’ll probably only want to watch the documentary once. To an outside observer, the deluxe edition is little more than a bauble: if you don’t know anything about the Gift, you could essentially stick to the standard edition and not miss out on a whole lot, save for “The Mother of My Mother”. The documentary is strictly promo fluff.
In the end, if Explode is mainly a means for this European band to stake a claim to the American charts, it is, by and large, a colossal failure. There are indelible moments of crystalline beauty that appear on Explode but the problem is that they are few and far between. The band spends a great deal of the roughly one-hour run time trying to fill its sound to the size of football stadiums, but forgets to wind its way around the type of grappling melodies that one needs to contain something of that size and volume. Explode, as an artistic statement, simply sputters and fizzles out, except when it whispers. All that American listeners will be left with is something that barely makes any sort of impression. You won’t understand why or how the Gift is Portugal’s band du jour, not from listening to the album or watching the documentary that accompanies the deluxe edition. That’s a disappointment, because you do have to wonder what makes this group so special to an entire nation of devotees. Ultimately, by adopting American idioms and radio-friendly sounds that actually aren’t all that radio friendly, it seems that with Explode any vestige of what makes this band so special has been utterly scrubbed clean. Being a chart topper in their homeland, all that you’re left with is the notion, however polarizing and unflattering that this may seem, that there are a lot of people in Portugal with a rather bizarre taste in what constitutes as being popular music made by their homeland brethren.