Music Features

Happy Anniversary... Dummy

‘’Gothic hip-hop’’, ‘’spy jazz’’, ‘’acid cabaret’’; Portishead’s music is as unique as the terms used to describe it. Twenty years ago, Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow created one of the most essential albums of the nineties, an album that also managed to consecrate the trip-hop genre only some time after the release of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Much like Aphex Twin and his rejection of the Intelligent Dance Music label acquired by his ambient masterpieces, the group shied away from the imposed trip-hop denomination. Genre, after all, can be a limiting and even reductive description of an artist’s output. But until the day someone comes up with a more meaningful term, the only thing to do is listen and appreciate an album that transcends labels and delights in mystifying listeners. Here’s a track by track review if anyone needs a reminder of what heartbroken satellite signals interwoven with hip-hop beats sound like. 

Mysterons: One word: theremin. It’s the only thing that understands Beth Gibbons’ despair. “Did you really want...?” she belts desperately in some outer space vacuum where the theremins whine and records scratch, leaving the question as to what we really wanted unanswered. 

Sour times: Sinister clanging bells ring in the background as Gibbons continues her lamentations in one of the group’s most well-known songs. The production lends a magnetic edge to the otherwise hopeless atmosphere, and the effect is energizing and never dreary.  

Strangers: Bolstered by the hardest, coolest beat on the album is a yearning, unintelligible chorus that sounds great sandwiched between those two identical opening and closing verses, and sounds even better once we stop trying to make out the words. 

It Could Be Sweet: The quiet, teasing ambience of this track combined with Gibbons’ accented vocal delivery make it subtly sexy. Lyrically she takes a break from her sorrow yet sounds just as alluring as a lovelorn seductress. 

Wandering Star: 50% scuzzy, thrumming basslines, 30% Gibbons’ trembling voice, 20% noodly record scratches, 100% groove. That War sample hits us at just the right moment. 

It’s A Fire: This track sounds like a softly rising dawn after the electronic storm. It is the one sliver of light in an album drenched in blue: “Breathe on, sister,” Gibbons urges us disconsolate souls, even we’re still fools at the end of the day. 

Numb: Dummy’s lead single embraces eeriness and invests in a tinny drum loop to keep the rhythm going. But the highlight is how Gibbons elongates and dramatizes every vowel, savoring every syllable, as in this line: “But I’m still feeling lonely / Feeling so unholy.”

Roads: The desolation increases. For a while Gibbons has only a gentle beat and some sparse synths behind her dejected crooning. Then a wave of cinematic strings kick in halfway through, and we know the sadness is real. 

Pedestal: Utterly chill and otherworldly, Pedestal shines on its own. But in a collection of tracks with such a similar blueprint, it gets lost in the mix. The jazzy solo in the middle makes it worth the listen. 

Biscuit: Biscuit is resentment and weariness made into music. Temptation was never such a double-edged sword as it is here. Props to Utley and Barrow for one of the most skilled uses of sampling ever; that twisted and slowed segment of I’ll Never Fall In Love Again is ruthlessly good. 

Glory Box: One of Portishead’s most recognizable songs, Glory Box is a gem that tends to outshine other, possibly more interesting songs on the record. Still, that "I just wanna be a woman" refrain is as classic as classic can be.