How Portishead got me through college in the mid-90s
In or around the autumn of 1995, the Snapple brand introduced a cantaloupe flavor. This decision seemed so ridiculous and improbable that I felt moved to buy and drink cantaloupe Snapple whenever possible, as if my own tastebuds couldn’t quite be believed and one more bottle might convince.
This was my freshman semester of undergrad: an era of constantly falling in love, surviving incompatible roommates, getting high on the sight of my bylines in print, and incessant drinking.
There was no hip. There was no hype. There was not – for me, anyway – any remote understanding of Dummy as the exciting next bracket on some sonic continuum or an evolutionary step toward something larger or more significant. It was just a record everyone collectively seemed to be aware of, whether via original copy or dubbed tape. (Three years later, Pet Sounds and If You’re Feeling Sinister were dorm-room ubiquitous in a similar way.) The music felt cold, dusty, half-asleep, and ancient, the vocals slung and swung by Beth Gibbons, a tortured chanteuse bound and determined to be the flaming torch hovering above and drifting across her band’s desolate midnight wasteland. Portishead was British, certainly, but also eternal in the way land masses or oceans are: always present and momentarily uncovered.
Dummy was, in a way, an updated if goth-friendly version of the records so many of our parents held in such high regard: grown up-fears, grown-up longing, sly, blues-y arrangement draped in shadows. Adrian Utley’s spectral guitars rang like dark bells; Geoff Barrow’s ecclesiastic pianos and organs lent dour color to his miserablist-qua-turntablist production choices. Not to mention the steady-handed, mesmerizing drumming of Clive Deamer across seven of the album’s 11 tracks, particularly “Roads” and “Wandering Star.” Listening to Portishead was profoundly cozy, like wearing sunglasses and bootleg designer hoodie two sizes too large. In the woods. At night.
Returning to it recently, I realized that I’ve always experienced Dummy in the way I experience 10,000 Maniacs’ Hope Chest: how the vocalists form or mis-form words becomes more important than the words themselves, with those words only occasionally congealing into meaning. So Gibbons’ magic on “It’s A Fire” is a husky tremulousness, a sensual, skipped-stone glide on “Sour Times,” a girlish keen for the whirling “Numb”. By the time slinky “Glory Box” rolls around, she’s become more cat-like, leaning into the enterprise’s seriousness so hard that it verges on camp. Twenty-five years later, Dummy still mesmerizes, mystifies, and chills.
AUDIO: Portishead Dummy (full album stream)