Portishead: ‘Dummy’ Still Perfect After 20 Years

Twenty years ago, there was no Spotify or YouTube. There was barely an internet. Certainly, there was no bittorrenting or Napster. So if you wanted to discover any new music, your options were limited. Hanging out at record stores was, in my opinion, one of the best ways to do it. In the 90s pretty much every record store had some sort of listening station set up. So, on one particular day, when I saw a certain blue cover with a creepy looking woman on it, sort of framed in letterbox, being the film geek I was, I figured I’d put the headphones on and see what this was all about. I was instantly shocked, awed and hooked by a sound that was many sounds I’d vaguely heard before, but never like this. Was this album from the future? From the past? From an alternate dimension where popular music was made up of movie soundtracks and sadness? I looked around, anxiously, hoping nobody would come and suddenly stop this because some horrible mistake had been made. So I immediately grabbed a copy and went to pay for it. And that’s how I found Portishead’s debut album, Dummy.

About 3 years later, I got to see Portishead live, in support of their second, self-titled album. It was a small club in Miami Beach and I was right up there, close to the stage. At one point, one girl was really grooving, dancing like it was 1999, and one guy who was just standing and bobbing his head in the pit gave her a dirty look. “It’s hip-hop!” she yelled at him as if he was crazy. And they were both right. It is hip-hop, but it’s also much more. It’s also jazz. It’s goth. It’s something you can dance to, but also something you can just ponder and absorb and get lost in. I’d start to hear the term “Trip Hop” a lot in those days and “Acid Jazz.” I’d search out other artists who were similar, from Massive Attack and Tricky to Kruder and Dorfmeister and Lamb. But to me, the source would always be Portishead.

When I got home with that first album, I found I was lost in a world where I couldn’t tell what was a sample and what they were playing. It all blended together in a music geek smoothie that was dark and cinematic. The opening track, “Mysterons” had invited me into a mystery I had to solve.. And little by little I would search for the original songs they had sampled throughout the album. From Isaac Hayes to Lalo Schifrin. This was music discovery in a way I had never imagined. Sure, hip-hop had been using samples for years before this, but not like this.

In the 90s, a lot of albums were starting to be compressed and made louder. This is another area where Portishead was different. The texture of this music was something that was being carefully put together. There was depth that continues to reveal itself to this day. Geoff Barrow and the rest of the band were sound guys and it was even more clear to me when I did see them live. It was the loudest, yet clearest thing I’ve ever heard. The attention to detail here was designed to deliver a complete experience. I have no idea what the movie playing in their head was about, but the soundtrack was amazing.

Everyone knows “Sour Times,” with its spy guitar riff and “Nobody loves me” chorus. It’s haunting and beautiful and still holds up. I would say that it’s not necessarily my favorite track, just to be contrary, but I do love it and the truth is, I don’t know if I have a favorite track on this album. They’re all favorites. If really pressed, though, I’d have to say “Numb.” That ringing drum and bass line with organ punctuating still gives me chills to this day. “I’m ever so lost / I can’t find my way,” sings Beth Gibbons, directly inside the back of brain, caressing my neck with her voice in the darkness of a lonely room. It never stops being that. “This loneliness / it just won’t leave me alone.”

But then there’s “Roads” with another haunting organ but also wah wah guitars, strings and the weight of the world itself. “How can it feel this wrong?”  and yet so right at the same time. By the time the album ends on “Glory Box,” which features a sample from Isaac Hayes’s
“Ike’s Rap III” that was also used by Tricky in “Hell is ‘Round the Corner,” there are countless reasons to love Portishead. It’s hard to believe this album is twenty years old this year. It still feels like something from the future.