Album: Dummy – Portishead
Review: NME, 13 August 1994
Author: Stephen Dalton
Poor Portishead. The town, I mean, not the slo-mo sound sculptors who have made this innocuous seaside hideaway sound so relentlessly tragic. For this is, without question, a sublime debut album. But so very, very sad.
‘Dummy’ unspools with melancholic majesty. From one angle, its languid slowbeat blues clearly occupy similar terrain to soulmates Massive Attack and all of Bristol hip-hop’s extended family. But from another these are avant-garde ambient moonscapes of a ferociously experimental nature. In other words, seriously spooky shit. But terrific shit all the same. Geoff Barrow‘s hugely evocative compositions earn constant comparisons with soundtrack gods Ennio Morricone and John Barry, although this is no smartarse spot-the-reference sample show. Most of these dislocating noises are played directly onto vinyl and then scratched back into the mix, creating deep and textured ambience instead of second-hand special effects.
Besides, it is Beth Gibbons‘ soulful sobs which really put Portishead on the emotional map. She can be Bjork or Billie Holliday, but the numb heartbreak is her recurring theme, culminating in the almost unbearable refrain “nobody loves me” from funereal current single ‘Sour Times’. Both Barrow and Gibbons are products of lonely, loveless childhoods, so titles like ‘Mysterons’ and ‘Wandering Star’ as much products of other-wordly isolation knowing trash-culture obsessions – the shadowy underside of human behaviour distilled into weeping strings, spectral there vibrations and haunting silences.
Portishead’s post-ambient, timelessly organ blues are probably too left-field introspective and downright Bristolian to grab short-term glory as some kind of Next Big Thing. But remember what radical departures ‘Blue Lines’ ‘Ambient Works’ and ‘Debut’ were for the times and make sure you hear this unmissable album. This may not be the future, but it is a future – one where Portishead is a desolate exquisitely beautiful place to visit.
It’s the fact that Portishead were complete unknowns at the time of the debut release, and also that nobody was fully prepared to tip them for huge success, which leads to what was a very short review in the NME. It was the same in the other UK weeklies and monthlies, although almost all of the reviews were incredibly positive – it was only as the commercial success began to catch-up with the critical acclaim did Portishead begin to enjoy extensive media coverage, and indeed the album and Beth Gibbons was everywhere come the end of the calendar year and the look back at ‘the best of 94’.
So much of the music from that year and indeed era hasn’t dated all that well, but Dummy is a huge exception. It remains a wonderful and essential listen, of appeal to fans whose main preferences span many genres, with a production and delivery that still sounds fresh more than 25 years on. My only gripe is that having delivered something as near perfect as this, it was going to be a huge task to match it with subsequent albums, and Portishead never really kept my interest in later years, not helped much by the fact that having snagged a sought-after ticket for Portishead’s debut Scottish gig in May 1995, the event proved to be very underwhelming and disappointing, thanks in the main to a complete lack of audience interaction from the stage….we’d have been as well sitting at home and playing the album on a big stereo.