(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #45 – released August 22, 1994)
Track listing: Mysterons / Sour Times / Strangers / It Could Be Sweet / Wandering Star / It’s A Fire / Numb / Roads / Pedestal / Biscuit / Glory Box
Late 1994, a dreary Saturday afternoon, driving up Packard Avenue in Cudahy, the radio in my parents’ borrowed Grand Am tuned to New Rock 102.1 FM, Milwaukee’s first commercial “Alternative”, or Modern Rock station (having switched over from Top 40 that September). Upon hearing the opening to Portishead’s “Sour Times” for the first time, I nearly pulled the car over—of course, I didn’t actually do so (although it’d make for a greater story if I had). Still, rarely before or since has hearing something new on the radio instantly startled me. The cinematic strings, the shuffling beat, the sly, spy-music guitar riff, the impossibly mournful female singer and most of all, that odd, unidentifiable, repeated, trembling, almost clanging noise utilized as a hook—all of it so unexpected, intriguing and eerie.
“Sour Times”, with its indelible chorus of “Nobody loves me, it’s true (pause) / not like you do,” would become a top five Modern Rock hit in the new year. Although Portishead would remain a one-hit wonder where that format was concerned, once something that strange and innovative received the amount of radio airplay it did, it felt like there was no going back to a time when the radio couldn’t be this interesting. Of course, it did just that, repeatedly, as Modern Rock as a format devolved first into a rather corporate version of “edgy” music that ended up little more than a playground for trend-jumpers and what I like to call “one-hit grungsters” (we won’t speak further of its second, later, downward slide into testosterone-heavy nu-metal). However, for one brief period, the possibilities of Modern Rock felt limitless. While Dummy was born out of circumstances and a scene that had precious little to do with this format, for me it exemplified a few optimistic months of my radio-listening youth before things turned, well, sour.
Two decades on, Dummy is more regularly remembered as one of the quintessential trip-hop albums rather than for anything it contributed to Modern Rock. Trip-hop was a moniker assigned to mostly British music inspired by the drum-machine, bass and sample-heavy rhythm tracks of rap songs. The difference was that it had virtually no rapping and none of the cultural signifiers rap as a genre contained. The first real trip-hop record, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, did feature rap on a few tracks, but it was entirely shorn of braggadocio or hardness, instead adhering closer to soft-spoken word and beat-derived jazz. The title track and lead single on Massive Attack’s second album, Protection, went to so far to feature Everything But The Girl’s vocalist Tracey Thorn, thus cementing an easy-to-follow template for the subgenre: a woman singing, often sorrowfully, occasionally playfully over a hip-hop beat, with samples coloring the spaces in between.
Although Dummy is undeniably trip-hop and a genre-defining record at that, it almost feels reductive to say so, in the same way that it became go-to “sexy bedroom” music for many listeners in subsequent years. In actuality, Dummy is often cold, dark, challenging and abrasive; intermittently, it’s also beguiling, melodic, and seductive and even radiates a little warmth and solace. Although noticeably influenced by the orchestral sweep of John Barry and the langour of Isaac Hayes (whom it samples), the album had few other precedents; also, much (but not all) of the trip-hop that followed palely imitated it without carrying a fraction of its depth, ingenuity and weirdness. It’s an easily comprehendable record on first listen that seems to reveal previously hidden facets and complexities as one becomes more familiar with and pays closer attention to all its darkened, emerging corridors.
For those not enclined to spend too much time on Dummy, “Mysterons” could tell you all you needed to know about the entire album on a superficial level: the opening, echoey Fender Rhodes electric piano repeating four notes and two chords, the record-scratching sample and loping, drum machine beat that both could’ve come off any Dr. Dre production, reverb-heavy guitar lurking in the background, the spooky, horror-flick vibe of the Theremin (in this case, a simulation of such and not the actual instrument) and most of all, Beth Gibbons’ deliberately artificial-sounding femme-fatale vocal, suffused with stressed syllables in an assortment of affectations (“all / or NOTH-innng”, “did you REAL-LY WAA-aaannt”). The basic elements of Dummy’s palette, they each appear in nearly all of its songs, but repeat in permutations varied and creative to a degree that little tends to run together or bleed into another. Each track seems to sustain a similar mood or sound until, often quite subtly, a new wrinkle or nuance emerges and alters it.
“Strangers”, for instance, seamlessly vacillates between jazzy, almost gentle-sounding samples (the brief, opening saxophone fanfare; the isolated, far-away, lone guitar lick in the first verse; the mysterious, almost Middle Eastern bell-like chime filigree later in the song) and the track’s heavy, thick, loud beat (when it first drops out, then suddenly returns at 1:15, it’s like breaking through the surface after brief submersion under ice-cold water.) “It Could Be Sweet” could almost be Everything But The Girl, with Gibbons emphasizing the title’s last word over a velvety-soft bed of Rhodes and syndrums; however, those rapid, angular orchestral stab samples keep entering the milieu, keeping us on edge. Both “Wandering Star” and “Numb” wed hummable melodies to deliberately alien backdrops while the band’s chief architect/producer Geoff Barrows manipulates various samples, playfully scratching them into the songs’ rhythms to break up the tension and dread, if just a bit.
Between those last two songs, “It’s A Fire” neatly divides the album into two halves (as RJ Wheaton suggests in his 33 1/3 series book on Dummy). It wasn’t originally included here, first issued as the B-side to “Sour Times” and then only added to the album’s US release and understandably so—it’s an obvious outlier, arguably more welcoming, soulful, and optimistic than anything else Portishead ever did (also far more accessible). Fear not, for the band’s patented misery returns with the aptly-titled “Numb” and sustains itself all the way through Dummy’s final note. While “Numb” and the slinkly, vaguely sinister “Pedestal” merely repeat motifs abundant in the album’s first half, the three remaining songs mark where Dummy shifts from a good record into a great one.
It’s still hard to believe “Roads” was never a single—even more than “It’s A Fire”, it’s the album’s beating, wounded heart. It slowly builds, piece by piece: first, another lone, reverb-heavy Rhodes (but of course!); then, the beat and Gibbons’ clearest, most emphatic vocal on the record, each verse ending with the searching, enigmatic lyric, “How can it feel this wrong?”. A wah-wah guitar echo and subtle but swooning strings straight out of Histoire de Melody Nelson come in on the second verse, the latter gradually growing in power and volume until everything else drops out at 3:19 and they take over the song in full force for a few seconds. This orchestration transforms “Roads” dramatically, like something you’d hold your lighter out in the air and sway along to if only that didn’t sound like a cliché and, in this setting, feel so gauche. And just as magically as the strings swell up, they drop out for the song’s final verse, as does all else until we’re left with just Rhodes and vocal. “Roads” musically ends as it begins, but emotionally it travels a great distance.
“Biscuit”, on the other hand, doesn’t move too far in any direction—it begins and ends on an all-encompassing sense of dread. The massive beat trudges along like a Mack truck that does not dare travel faster than ten miles an hour, and yet, somehow, there co-exists a teeny, tiny spring in its step, particularly in those three vaguely funky notes at the end of every revolution of the repeated hook, like it’s moving one step forward, two steps back. The song’s real coup de grace, however, is the vocal sample of Johnnie Ray’s 1959 recording, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Rather perversely, Portishead takes Ray’s originally peppy tune and deliriously sloooows down his vocal (like The Chipmunks in reverse!) to the point where it resembles a corpse wailing from beyond the grave—a somewhat macabre intent since Ray had died just four years before. Equally unnerving and morbidly funny, it only further ramps up the desperation and terror in Gibbons’ voice.
However, to say she just plays the victim in Dummy’s often bleak, miserable universe is inaccurate. Had the album ended on “Biscuit” that might’ve applied; instead, actual finale “Glory Box” is where all of its themes and moods alchemize and then take a left turn. The song ever-so-slowly fades in, but is fully formed from the barely-audible first seconds of a four-chord progression blessed with a string sample from an old Isaac Hayes tune. At first, Gibbon’s vocals are her most cartoonish on record: “I’m so tired / of playin’ / playin’ with a broken arrow / gonna give my heart away / leave it to the other girls to / play,” all of it sung like Betty Boop slowed down from 45 to 33 RPM. But then, the next line (“A thousand flowers bloom”) suddenly pierces and aches in its much higher, more emphatic register. “Move over / and give us some room, yeah,” she then practically coos. Still, it’s all just a warmup for the massive chorus, where, backed by a heavily distorted but melodic guitar riff, she sings, “Give me a reason to love you / Give me a reason to be / a woman.” Suddenly, she’s anticipating the Spice Girls (in sentiment, not in sound) by two years, with any fragility in her voice overruled by empowerment and determination.
After the third chorus, at 4:08, she abruptly wails, “THIS is the BEGINNING / of FOREVER / and EVER!” as if boldly facing and staring down death itself. She triumphs over the steamroller beat, explaining, “It’s time to move on, / so long for me” but you realize she doesn’t mean death as in mortality but the conclusion of something more temporary, fluid, undefined: A relationship? An attitude? A thing to overcome that, if one fails to do so will bring loss but not entire physical destruction? It’s unclear, but such ambiguity and power are potent enough to leave one both reeling and utterly changed long after the first verse of “Glory Box” begins again and the track slowly fades out. On subsequent listens, one might view all of Dummy through a slightly altered lens, knowing that no matter how much sorrow it emits, it will ultimately end in, well, not exactly joy, but in startled discovery—the rare album with a somewhat limited musical palette that still manages to feel limitless.
Up next: Another alternative from Modern Rock’s commercial and creative peak.