Alaskan outfit Portugal. The Man has always excelled at melding multiple styles into a delightfully varied, distinctive, and pleasurable sound. While they’ve routinely implemented shades of electronic and hip-hop into their alt/indie/psych rock foundation, 2013’s Evil Friends saw them team up with producer Danger Mouse for their most transparent blend (and best effort) yet. It makes sense, then, that they’d continue the winning formula on Woodstock, an expectedly and impeccably colorful, dense, and attractive eighth studio LP. While it’s not quite as characteristic, ambitious, and significant as its predecessor -- it feels a tad more superficial at times, as if it’s aiming for mainstream trendiness -- it’s more immediately appealing and consistently blissful. Either way, it certainly upholds what makes Portugal. The Man so special.
As many fans know, the initial follow-up to Evil Friends was going to be called Gloomin + Doomin; in fact (and as the press release explains), “they created a shit-ton of individual songs, but as a whole, none of them hung together in a way that felt right”. They seemed to be “stuck on a musical elliptical machine from hell” -- that is, until lead vocalist, John Gourley got a bit of “parental tough love” from his dad about figuring out the next move, as well as found his father’s ticket stub from the original 1969 Woodstock music festival.
Epiphanically, he “realized that, in the same tradition of bands from that era, Portugal. The Man needed to speak out about the world crumbling around them”, which meant ditching Gloomin + Doomin entirely and working with several producers -- Danger Mouse, John Hill, Beastie Boys founder Mike D, and longtime collaborate Casey Bates -- to deliver something else: Woodstock. Written with “optimism and heart”, it aims to elicit both joyous reactions and sociopolitical mindfulness, and that’s precisely what it does. Filled with vibrant textures, intriguing instrumentation, and charming melodies, it’s another classic Portugal. The Man record.
The album beings with its most remarkable selection, “Number One”. A sample from Ritchie Havens’ performance of “Freedom” at Woodstock kicks things off (and returns at the end), allowing his raspy chants of “sometimes I feel like a motherless child” and “sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone” to immediately conjure societal heartache and cultural depth. Shortly after, the band (with help from Son Little) transforms Havens’ excerpt into an inventive hip-hop/rhythm & blues collage, over which Gourley places his distinguishing vocals. All of his passages (such as “It's that sufferin'/ Don't know why it brings / Such sweet memories / Will be the enemy”) are equally powerful and alluring, and they fit perfectly with the gripping modulations behind him. As a result, “Number One” is not only a stunning starting point and mash-up, but also one of the band’s best compositions to date.
“Easy Tiger” is noticeably brighter, with a club beat and Auto-Tuned effects joining a psychedelic rock bedding to yield a more jovial and traditional atmosphere. That said, Gourley brings his signature melancholic sleekness to the fold, so there’s an air of solemnness beneath the party vibe that, as usual, works very well. Afterward, "Live in the Moment" is as anthemic and celebratory as anything else Portugal. The Man has done; with luscious synths, exciting percussion, tranquil transitions, and an invigorating chorus -- “Oooooh la la la la la / Let's live in the moment / Come back Sunday morning” -- it’s an instantly captivating piece that’s perfect for the summer 2017 soundtrack.
Likewise, “Feel It Still” is a silky-smooth gem that combines the funky elegance of Janelle Monáe with the energetic flamboyance of Gorillaz. It’s relatively straightforward and familiar (to be honest, it evokes the middle section of “Plastic Soldiers” a bit too much), but it’s undeniably fun nonetheless, with plenty of playful tones scattered around to make you smile. “Rich Friends” takes a heavier approach overall, with forceful percussion and sharp guitar riffs leading the way. Structurally, it’s a straightforward rock song, albeit with plenty of multilayered eccentricities to keep it engaging and impressive, and the same can be said of “Keep On”. Here, the haunting harmonies and gentler, sparse arrangement stand out most. It’s a breezy and inviting few minutes that somewhat recall the sunny pop hits of the 1960s.
Horns and light guitar arpeggios are put to subtle yet effective use on “So Young”, a dreamy track with thick rhythms that finds Gourley working with ongoing collaborator Zoe Manville for additional vocal variety. Melodically, it resembles “Evil Friends” closely at times, but that doesn’t stop it from being a poignantly and optimistically worthwhile. It’s followed by "Mr. Lonely", which takes place in late ‘70s New York City and transmits a faintly sad sensation under its hip-hop veneer. Specifically, Gourley has rarely sounded so fragile and defeated during the verses, while the chorus -- “You can call me King / I don't think you wanna know me / Don't call me King / Call me Mr. Lonely” -- is understatedly devastating. In terms of pure songwriting, it’s a highlight of Woodstock, and the rap portion (courtesy of Fat Lip) adds even more thematic richness and stylistic diversity.
The penultimate “Tidal Wave” fuses enticing syncopation, piano chords, strings, and other miscellaneous timbres for a strikingly catchy and cool journey that’s guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Like much of their music, there’s a bittersweet core to it, but for the most part, it’s quite exuberant. True to its name, closer “Noise Pollution” sees Gourley, Manville, and even actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who chimes in with French phrases) exploring a wildly infectious and flashy sound palette, with multiple constructions colliding into festive madness. In doing so, it captures Portugal. The Man at their most experimental, bold, and carefree, showcasing a jubilance that wisely juxtaposes some of the previous somberness.
With Woodstock, Portugal. The Man continues to be exceptionally colorful, polished, moving, and determined. Sure, the group has lost a sliver of their uniqueness in the move toward a more commercially viable and accessible sound, but the vast majority of their idiosyncratic identity is still here. In other words, the band remains as one-of-a-kind as possible, with several of their greatest tracks thus far culminating in a truly special sequence. Really, it’s records like this that demonstrate just how peculiar and adventurous yet relatable and enjoyable music can be. Like its namesake, it’s a celebration of peace, love, and musicality that shouldn’t be missed.