Review Summary: Dummy is a moving album with a haunting atmosphere and a persistent, infectious groove.
Trip-hop has always been one of music's biggest gray areas. What makes it so interesting is that it's not easily definable. Sure, you can say it's a healthy mixture of electronic music and hip-hop, but that really would not do bands like Portishead justice. As one of the preeminent pioneers of this fascinating sub-genre, Portishead unleashes a breath of fresh air with the robust and consistent Dummy, their debut LP.
From start to finish, Dummy has a fairly steady groove that carries over through each track. Most of the album is executed in a low-key, unassuming fashion. However, the album also carries a certain degree of tension and melancholy. Settling into these addictive grooves can be quite satisfying, but there is something unsettling lurking in the shadows. Beth Gibbons's vocals conveys a unique restlessness that serves to actively compete with the downtempo beats and outlandish rhythms. Her voice brings the emotional drive that keeps the album engaging.
Dummy is filled with off-kilter beats, surprising turntable effects, and a plethora of instruments that give the album an organic feel. Portishead melds all of these elements in such a fulfilling way to create an atmosphere that is as exquisite as it is eerie. I always wonder how the band arrived at what they did, but, whatever they did, it worked. Their ambition comes to light on every track, as they constantly evade the trails of one specific genre. The opening track, "Mysterons", for instance, delivers a stream of uncanny electronic sounds packaged with a murky hip-hop coating. The track sets the tone for the entire LP and establishes the mystifying environment that never ceases until the sexy closing track, "Glory Box", slowly drifts away.
Gibbons's voice exceeds all expectations on tracks like the exciting and immersive "Sour Times", the delicate "It Could Be Sweet", and the contemplative "It's a Fire". From the sampling to the sonic textures, Dummy is a musical treat. Its spookiness never lets up, but it never overpowers the album's finesse. Thus, the production is intricate and smooth. Songs like "Wandering Star" expose Portishead's penchant for a twisted hip-hop sound as they manipulate the track's overall sound with a relentless outpouring of turntable effects. By the time Dummy reaches the album's centerpiece, "It's a Fire", Gibbons keeps the LP alive and well with simple but suitable lyricism like "Breathe on."
However, all of Portishead's abilities reach complete fulfillment with the hauntingly beautiful "Roads". "Roads" is incredibly dense, with a perfect blend of strings that heighten the anxiety, keyboards that sink to mystifying depths, and hypnotizing drums that reinforce the mysterious force present throughout the album. In addition, the poignant vocals allow this painful, internal battle to materialize. Dummy is filled with psychological struggle and hopeless sentiments. Gibbons never breaks this character and her vocals come across as both honest and affected. On the grim penultimate track "Biscuit", she captures a lost and wayward girl who tears herself apart as the unforgiving world merely passes her by.
Dummy is a self-contained work of art with plenty of passion to offer with every listen. It sets out to deliver a dark, but sensual mood and succeeds on a number of different levels. As a result, the LP gradually evolves into a deeply intimate and surreal experience. Trip-hop is not your typical musical genre, and Portishead is clearly not your typical musical group.