The Noir Sound Of Portishead
By Beth Winegarner
There are certain songs -- whole albums, sometimes -- which slowly, but surely, get under your skin and take hold of your very being. Sometimes, it's as if a new personality invades your consciousness, and, for a while at least, changes your perspective.
Such was the case with "Sour Times," Portishead's breakthrough 1994 single, as well as the group's entire debut album, Dummy. Back then, critics swooned to Beth Gibbons' dreamy vocals and Geoff Barrow's homemade sampling brews. It took two years for the quartet -- which also includes guitarist Adrian Utley and musician/engineer Dave McDonald -- to craft a follow-up.
It was worth the wait. Just a few listens and you can already feel the sounds permeating your very soul.
Portishead's return should more than satisfy fans of the band's drowsy, noir melancholia. Although in an early 1995 Dummy-era interview with Addicted to Noise, Barrow predicted Portishead's music would take a new direction, Portishead is a plaintive, disturbing and refreshingly honest album that builds on the sound that made their first record such a revelation.
"Cowboys," the opening track, with its siren-like reverberations breaking loose as Gibbons' disconnected voice enters the scene, immediately establishes that Portishead is going to take you to somewhere else. A record-pop loop recalls an older time, a sepia-toned history with elements of 1940s jazz, while Gibbons, in razor blade tones, warns: "But don't despair, this day will be the damnedest day/ If you take these things from me."
Much of the record borrows its ambiance from pre-rock musical constructions; It's the kind of music which might have been made for black and white films, if samplers had existed in the 1930s.
Several tracks make liberal use of fuzzy record crackles, layered with a favorite Barrow ploy: old-school scratching by way of American hip-hop, an effect which brings tension to numbers such as "Over," "Only You" and "Elysium." However, while hip-hop artists use the scratch as a beat-building mechanism, Barrow creates off-rhythm layers which manipulate the mood of Portishead's compositions.
The undeniable draw of the band is Gibbons' voice. Through often tiny effects a la Billie Holiday, she displays a range of emotions, from the near-sobbing tremble of "Undenied," where she asks, "Now that I've found you/ And seen behind those eyes/ How can I carry on?" to cold fury in songs such as "Elysium" and "Seven Months," where she sings, "Why should I forgive you after all that I've seen?/ Quietly whisper when my heart wants to scream?"
Gibbons' shows us her sultry side to carry a jazzy melody in the first single, "All Mine." At first the track seems like an unabashed love song, with big-band horns punctuating Gibbons' croon. "But when you smile, oh how I feel so good/ That I can hardly wait to hold you and fold you/ Never enough, render your heart to me/ All mine." It's so genuine that the listener can't help but suspect a darker truth, which Gibbons renders in the next verse: "Make no mistake, you shan't escape/ Tendered and tied, there's nowhere to hide from me/ All mine." She also puts on her best Billie Holiday for "Western Eyes." When she trills lines such as, "Yes, I'm breaking at the seams, just like you," there's no doubting her sincerity.
Other touches that flesh out Portishead's unusual sonic atmosphere: Guitarist Adrian Utley's 007 guitar lines on "Seven Months" and "Mourning Air," along with sampled trumpets, strings and various eerie noises.
Perhaps the most unique-sounding track, however, is "Half Day Closing," a psychedelic explosion of dissonance and sorrow. Gibbons' voice is treated with warbled Leslie effects while electronic scales build behind her, creating a space-age undercurrent that suggests disconnectedness. In a telling line Gibbons sings, "In the olden days when everybody knew what they wanted -- it ain't today."
Portishead's music at once seems to invoke the past -- some hazy period between the smoky jazz clubs of the 1930s and the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s -- and a futuristic landscape laid flat by despair. Tension builds between Gibbons' sweet, sadly delivered melodies and Barrow's dissonant rhythms and scraps of noise.
With their new album, Portishead indicate that there are still vast sonic landscapes to explore. And this is just the beginning.
This article was originally published in Addicted to Noise.