Counterbalance No. 70: Portishead – ‘Dummy’

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Klinger: In our attempt to make sense of the most acclaimed albums of all time (as mathematically determined by the Acclaimed Music website), Counterbalance has covered a pretty broad spectrum of musical styles. But as we reach Portishead’s Dummy, one nagging thought keeps occurring to me: whatever we end up saying about the album here, it’s the second trip-hop album we’ve covered so far, and that strikes me as odd for a genre that really kind of died off some time during President Clinton’s second term (or perhaps more accurately, Tony Blair’s first term). For folks keeping score at home, that’s Hip-Hop: 1, Trip-Hop: 2.

But that’s where you come in, Mendelsohn. I rely on you for guidance whenever we have to talk about anything that ends in the word “hop”, so I’m going to need you to talk me through this one. I don’t have anything against Dummy, but I really wasn’t paying much attention to this sort of thing when it was happening, and I feel like I may have missed the broader cultural context. Why is trip-hop so well-represented on the Great List, and why do you reckon is Portishead is so highly regarded?

Mendelsohn: I wouldn’t say that trip-hop is dead; it’s more like that very specific sub-genre has bled back into the overarching genre of electronic music, which is still going strong and pushing a wide variety of styles in a myriad of directions. Public interest in the genre certainly died off in 1990s, but for the regular layperson, after you’ve heard one trip-hop album, you’ve heard them all. Unless you are British, in which case that number is upped to two—Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and now Portishead’s Dummy.

I don’t think I can fully explain why trip-hop piqued the public interest for those short couple of years. My best guess is that is offered something completely different than what was being offered at the time, but that difference was found in the way these artists were able to take pieces of completely recognizable music and stitch them back together. In trip-hop you get elements of hip-hop, rock, jazz, reggae, blues, funk, R&B, and–with Portishead–a whole lot of soul. When you get right down to it, Dummy is nothing but a soul album built around some very odd textures. Just for a quick thought exercise, go back and listen to the three singles that came off this album—”Sour Times”, “Numb”, and “Glory Box”. Just look for the heart of the song and try to imagine Sam Cooke or Nina Simone. You know how you can sort of cross your eyes to make whatever you are looking at blur into a simple shape? Try and cross your ears when you listen to this record. Behind the noise and atmosphere and outré beats is the same music we’d been hearing for the past 50 years, just updated for the angsty, nihilistic youth of the middle ’90s.

Klinger: OK, that’s helpful, especially since you referred to the more sophisticated end of the soul spectrum rather than the Stax-ier elements. Still, even listening to it through that lens (to mix a metaphor) raises questions of its own. After all, soul is a music of emotion, ecstatic and cathartic, and I don’t get the same tension and release from Portishead. Listening closely, it’s clear that singer Beth Gibbons deftly employs her voice in a variety of ways, creating different textures to suit the mood of the piece. But instead of building throughout, the songs tend to remain level, and everything stays cool.

And “cool” is the word that I keep coming back to as I listen to Dummy. Cool as in climate-controlled, cool as in thoroughly composed. Whatever emotion Gibbons invests in her vocals is tempered by Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley’s music. “Glory Box”, for example, features hyper-distorted Hendrix licks from Utley, but the overall effect is more evocative of rock guitar sounds than it is actual rock guitar. Does that make sense? That the sounds here come across as more representative than concrete? And that after too long it starts making me crave the organic whole wheat stylings of the Band?

Mendelsohn: I see where you are coming from. There is certainly something that borders on detachment weaved into the fabric of the record. But again, we are talking about the 1990s and detachment was de rigueur. As much as I love this record, I view it more as a mood piece or a chill-out aid and can only ever listen to at very specific times. Rainy days, long night drives, or an evening spent reading a book are about the only times I’ll reach for this record.

I think the real beauty of the record is how restrained and quiet it can be. You talk about this album being cool, but think about how hard something like that is to achieve. In any other context, those hot licks that Utley lays down in “Glory Box” would be used to melt faces. Portishead turns that fire into ice. There is a total reshaping of the music on this record, almost to the level of alchemy. But that only really happens in the good days. Most of the time, after this record gets done spinning, I put on something a little warmer, and as you said, a little more organic.

Klinger: Is it that difficult to sustain that level of placidity over the course of an entire album? Maybe it is—looking back over the Great List, about the only other time that’s really happened is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. And to my ears, that appears to be the template that Portishead are working from here. Is Beth Gibbons the antic Coltrane to Geoff Barrow’s serene Davis? With Adrian Utley as Cannonball Adderley? This analogy could prove helpful for me as I attempt to shift my thinking about more electronic musical forms. I do come at this with my own unfortunate prejudices that are a by-product of my rockist upbringing, in which synthesizers and drum machines aren’t “real” instruments and it all seems more like computer programming than musical composing. My opinions are, of course, slowly evolving, and finding a way to think about it in comparison to the “pure” musicianship of jazz.

Regardless of how readily I manage to evolve, though, I can say that Dummy is having its effects on me. From the first pulsings of “Mysterons”, I begin to get the sensation that I’m in some swellegant, thoroughly modern cocktail lounge, sipping on a very dry martini as a tall, poised fashion model with a thick Eastern European accent gazes disdainfully at me. It’s possible that I am in Stockholm. I am wearing a very nice suit. I’m not entirely sure if this is what Portishead was going for then they recorded Dummy, but I suspect they would approve. Am I mistaken, Herr Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: No mistake about it, my friend. There is definitely something exotic and mysterious about this record that goes along with that dark and cool vibe that might help explain the success of this record. Thinking about the electronic music of the early and middle 1990s, it’s easy to see why Portishead would have stood apart from the day-glo, club beat pack. It was that kind of club music that helped perpetuate the whole notion that electronic music is nothing more than pushing buttons and inserting hooks. And while I may refer to Portishead as an electronic group, in reality, they are a band that uses electronic elements to craft their music. And music, be it from a guitar or a guitar that has been sampled, rearranged and repackaged, is still music—especially when it’s done with such care as displayed by Utley, Barrow, and Gibbons.

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