Review Summary: A solid Trip Hop album with many interesting and memorable songs. Beth Gibbons melts the listener's heart, while certain elements fall short in favor of slow moodiness.
Please, I beg of you Trip Hop fans not to lynch me. I'm going to get this out of the way right now:
I've never heard Dummy.
I know, I know, I'm a terrible human being, but I cannot recall hearing a single track from the album, and I'm reviewing Portishead's self-titled sophomore album without having the reference of their so-called "brilliant" and "classic" debut. I won't have any snarky comments comparing the two, or have any backdrop of thinly-veiled disappointment that Portishead
isn't quite another Dummy
Oh, well. Too bad, I guess.
is as truly impressive as the general populace would lead me to believe, then it's likely that I'll also feel that Portishead
is not quite the follow-up album that we were all hoping for, but I would also feel confident in saying that it's quite good on its own. I'm certainly no expert on Trip-Hop, but I know what I like, and Portishead almost never refuse to give it to me. In particular, I'm enamored with frontwoman Beth Gibbons' startling voice, as it slides easily in and out of any mode of singing that she desires to fit the song. From her childlike crooning on "All Mine", to the heart wrenching wails of "Only You", and the vague creepiness of the distorted "Half Day Closing" and dark "Humming", she modulates her voice effortlessly and effectively, making her the perfect centerpiece and focal point of the group. Everything else seems to be revolved around her participation, almost as if the music were composed to heighten the effect of what she's capable of. Gibbons' works the emotions of the listener, wrapping you around her finger and twisting with motions of sorrow, bitterness, regret, and once in a while anger.
Further to the credit of the band, there are certain tracks on this album that truly are quite stellar. "Only You" and "Humming" are my two lasting favorites, one being a crisp, Rhodes-inflected, and almost bouncy little ode of longing, the other a haunted homage to film noir and men in fedoras walking down back alleys with girls in luxurious gowns looking out into the rain after them with bored looks on their faces. "All Mine" is a lot of fun to listen to, as it bends rules of tonality with almost unnoticed ease - you shouldn't be allowed to follow a tonic Eb minor with a big old D minor chord, but that's the basis of the song, and I'll be damned if it doesn't sound great. The unique duality of "Elysium", split between its driving thumps and slow piano/guitar section, also finds a new level of snarl in Gibbons' voice, and is a long, impressive work that finely balances many of the better elements of Portishead.
As much as I enjoy the individual songs on the album, I'm the type of person that likes to listen to an album in one sitting, taking in all of the subtleties and less obvious intent through the album experience. Despite that I have certain tracks in mind that I'm really aching to hear when I listen to the album, I often find myself listening to every track without skipping any. There is a pleasant level of variety throughout the album, which keeps the listener's ear attentive - each song is a departure from the last right from the very beginning. "Cowboys" works as a moderately intense opener, immediately demanding the listener's attention, while the next, "All Mine", is a sexy number reminiscent of James Bond theme music. The album takes an overtly darker turn afterwards, particularly notable in the run of "Over" through "Seven Months", and comes back up a bit for "Only You". This is not to say the flow is perfect - "Elysium" drives towards the closer, then stops off for the sparse, slow "Western Eyes", which almost doesn't work.
As far as their Hip-Hop influences go, Portishead do many things right, but get stuck in a bit of a rhythmic rut within the framework of individual songs. "Only You" is one of the very few tracks to escape a fairly routine percussion track, but if I had to register any complaints against perennial favorites like "Humming", it would be the rather stale drum tracks that plague otherwise excellent songs. On certain tracks, particularly "Mourning Air" and "Half Day Closing", the bassist sets a nice groove for the song, which is pleasantly offset by the simple drum work, but often his contribution is minimal during moments where a nice bass lick would've spiced up the album nicely. It seems that the band have sacrificed some elements of musicality in favor of mood, crafting interesting sonic atmospheres that sometimes run a bit thin due to oversimplification. The other issue is one of pacing - Portishead
has a very good flow from start to finish, but it does drag somewhat as essentially all of the songs are downtempo, somewhat ambient and minor key - for the active listener, this lack of diversity in meter and velocity becomes a bit boring over time. The album moves at the pace of syrup going down a shallow incline - you know it's moving, but it's a bit frustrating that it isn't getting to its destination fast enough. The album is only 50 minutes long, but it feels much, much longer while you're listening to it. The album's intensity really only exists towards the start and end, with "Cowboys" and "Elysium" in particular providing the relative pushes of momentum, even though the push at the end of the album peters out into "Western Eyes", which is way too lackluster for its own good.
Despite its flaws, Portishead
still comes out on top, with some beautiful results and very memorable songs all across the album, and barely any failures. In that way, it's a very solid effort, and very listenable, particularly for the patient. If you're willing to wait a bit, the rewards are worth the effort, and this album will likely grow on you.