Portugal.The Man, the intriguingly named band from Alaska, has been nothing short of prolific over the course of their short four-year career, releasing four full-length albums and four EPs like they’ve been hit with a severely awesome case of musical diarrhea. I mean that in the most flattering way possible. It’s not easy to make inroads into the continental American music scene without talent and abundant output to ensure the spreading of the word. But what’s most interesting about this conceptually ripe group is that, somewhere between The Last Frontier and the cozier comforts of their new home in Portland, there has been a marked change from freewheeling experimental rock to polished pop. In other words, the riskier DIY ethic that once heralded exploratory forays has been reigned in for something much safer on The Satanic Satanists.
Sure, it’s more than slightly ironic that an album with two nods to the Prince of Darkness would have such mainstream, cookiecutter appeal, but such are the bizarre fluctuations of marketability. That said, this is very much in line with Portugal.The Man’s signature blues-meets-soul-meets-quirky rock kind of sound. Frontman John Gouley’s soaring falsettos and impressive lows are still prominent, and the guitar leads still verge on psychedelic explosion. What’s different here is the attention to more straightforward presentations of melody, hooks, and a thinly veiled attempt to have a song or two utilized by a primetime cable drama. But I’ll be damned if I can’t help but like this record.
Maybe it’s the swooning silken brevity of “People Say”, the opening antiwar track that could have been lifted directly from the next Maroon 5 album. Or maybe it’s the slight hip-hop vibe of “Work All Day”, which sounds happily like this generation’s blue-collar ode to exhaustion. Or maybe it’s the urgent electronica leanings of “Lovers in Love”, with its subtle use of stringed instruments to create another layer of sonic texture. I can’t really be certain, but there is an intangible quality present in Portugal.The Man at a primordial level, an inherent one that transcends the flaws of pop prescriptions and ultra -smooth production work. The band has an impressive ability to create memorable hooks and forget-me-not rhythms, something that has been obvious since their Waiter: You Vultures! debut. That is no less evident on The Satanic Satanists.
The downside is that the basic structure of pop music makes it glaringly apparent when lyrical quality is sacrificed for the sake of the lowest common denominator. This process of dumbing their music down is readily noticeable in the Oasis-like “The Sun”, which sports such druidic triteness as, “We are all just lovers / born of earth and light like all the others.” A similar example is the New Age optimism of the title chorus in “Everyone Is Golden”. I’d expect this kind of bland buoyancy from a huge mainstream band like U2 or Bon Jovi, but here it’s extremely unbecoming. It’s so against the catalogued tendencies of Portugal.The Man that it seems disingenuous or forced, at the very least.
But as a whole The Satanic Satanists is an enjoyable listen with dynamic arrangements that, while they never stray too far from pop’s narrow confines, rarely sound formulaic. Something also needs to be said for the album artwork, which unfolds as a watercolor collage like some hallucinogenic pop-up book. Without hyperbole I can say that this is the single greatest music packaging I have ever seen, combining interactive art with the function of liner notes and production credits. At any rate, this is Portugal.The Man’s most streamlined release to date, full of syrupy sentiments, crooning entreaties, and sing-along choruses that will echo in your head longer then they rightfully should. This Alaskan group has changed their approach yet again, for better or worse, to something brighter and less inhibited by the philosophical trappings of music for music’s sake. With this in mind the album’s title seems more literal than clever. Would you sell your soul for a chance at mainstream success, or would you just make it seem that way?
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// Notes from the Road
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