20 Years Later: A non-fan reevulates Portishead’s Dummy

I am constantly scolded for not being a Portishead fan. In response to these rebukes, I always respond with a simple: “It’s not really my thing.” This is a true statement. In general, I’ve never really been a fan of that Massive Attack/Aphex Twin/Chemical Brothers electronica/mood music. I prefer sing-alongs and dancing to head-bobs and swaying.

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Portishead – Dummy (1994, Go! Discs)

It cannot be ignored that Portishead is a very influential band. They formed in England around the early 90s and were fronted by the ethereal vocals of Beth Gibbons. Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley rounded out the lineup and they released three albums.  Their most successful album was the debut, Dummy. Generally speaking, I understand the importance of this album. I grasp how important it was at bringing “cool jazz and spy soundtracks,” as described on their AllMusic page.

I keep wondering if I’ve been missing something all along with regards to this album. So, in honor of Dummy‘s 20th anniversary, I am going to take another listen to this seminal “trip-hop” album and ponder its sound as well as reanalyze my feelings for the release.

As I listened to Dummy, I was transported somewhere far away as the band’s sound is generally very dreamy. It was quite an interesting feeling. The album has an odd sound. Beth Gibbons has a very powerful voice. But the power isn’t that obvious. It is more of a sedated power. Overall, I believe this is why Dummy is such a divisive release for me.

The opening track, “Mysterons,” is quite interesting as it seems visual without actually presenting images. That is how I feel about most of this album, actually. It lends itself to closing your eyes and imaging wondrous swirls of darkness. I imagined a lot of starry, spiral patterns in “Biscuit.”

“Numb” was one of the album’s successful singles. Effects kick off the song and tinny sounds are emitted in the background.  Gibbons’ vocals reach into soul-singer territory as she sings through “I can’t understand myself anymore/ But I’m still feeling lonely / Feeling so unholy.” She is embarking on a war against expectations and loneliness. She adeptly expresses the discomfort and distress that many of us feel on a regular basis.

I found “It Could be Sweet” as the most accessible song on the album. It was incredibly heartbreaking with lyrics “Cos I don’t wanna lose/ What we had last time/ you’re leaving this life ain’t fair / You don’t get something for nothing, turn now / Mmmm gotta try a little harder / It could be sweet”

I was also drawn to “It’s a Fire.” “This life is a farce / I can’t breathe through this mask / Like a fool / So breathe on, sister breathe on.” These themes of disguises and discontent do appeal to my angsty side.

I understand why people like this album. But for me, I think it is more of a “time and a place” album and less of a frequent playlist release. For me specifically, my daily musical choices depend on mood or situation.  Dummy is an album that may find itself into the rotation with Explosions in the Sky.

I am not dismissing its value or neglecting the sound’s uniqueness. It is unique. It is valuable. I feel strongly that no album will capture this sound again.  It is a complicated album by a complicated band. They will always be known for this album. It will be passed down from one generation to the next: by cool aunts and uncles to their hopeful nieces and nephews.  It is something that is easy to mellow out to without being bored. The trippy melodies and dizzy vocals are perfect for spacing out. And something that is a necessity.

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