‘Dummy’: How Portishead Captured The Zeitgeist Like No Other Band
The group merged hip-hop with soundtrack atmospherics to create one of the defining albums of the 90s.
By 1994, Bristol, England, had for several years been shaping an internationally important new music scene largely based around the work of producers Smith And Mighty and their collaborators Massive Attack. On the edge of this scene sat recording-studio worker Geoff Barrow. From 1991, he began working on his own material as Portishead, named after a small local town. By the following year, he had done a bit of production work for sometime Massive Attack rapper Tricky, and had co-written “Somedays” for their patron Neneh Cherry, its audible crackle and slo-mo scratching pointing the way toward Portishead’s debut album, Dummy. He limbered up further with some remixes for Depeche Mode.
Barrow then captured the zeitgeist, perhaps even more so than his contemporaries, by teaming up with ethereal singer Beth Gibbons and guitarist Adrian Utley to produce Dummy near enough out of the blue. An amazingly assured, multimillion-selling album, it took the slightly unsettling, blurry blues vibe that Barrow had already brought to his remix of Gabrielle’s “Going Nowhere,” added radio and club hits, and immediately updated the Sade template for credible dinner-party music into the bargain.
Dummy’s highly contemporary (and, at the time, somewhat odd) makeover of the torch-song format incorporated defiantly un-American scratching alongside film soundtrack atmospherics, emerging just as critics were starting to lump all this material together as trip-hop. With the group’s hip-hop credentials co-signed via their association with like-minded DJ Andy Smith, the album’s place in music history was immediately confirmed.
It opens with the bass-heavy “Mysterons,” which is festooned with Portishead’s trademark hollowed-out drums, with underwater scratching and instantly recognizable, otherworldly Theremin from Utley, as Gibbons sets out her stall with semi-oblique, strong yet obscured vocals. Single “Sour Times” follows, sampling Lalo Schifrin and adding atmospheric spy-theme guitar from Utley, to underscore footage from the group’s To Kill A Dead Man short film.
The massive sound wall of “Strangers” hooks Weather Report up to a doubled-up telephone dial tone and fuzz guitar, with Gibbons reaching out again for that strength: “Just set aside your fears of life.” The more restrained “It Could Be Sweet” then rides in on some beautiful Fender Rhodes from Barrow, close to Massive Attack’s crisp contemporary sound, before the Balearic Hammond and woozy scratching of a War sample on “Wandering Star” (“Please could you stay awhile to share my grief”). The group’s pin-sharp, darkly jazzy first single, “Numb,” featured Utley bass bombs and nervy scratches, with desiccated seaside Hammond emerging through the tub-thumping drums.
One of the 90s’ defining albums
The deeply melancholic “Roads” is titled as a play on the sadness of Neil Solman’s tremolo-treated Rhodes piano, dominating the blue atmosphere wreathed with Gibbons’ desolation: “I got nobody on my side/And surely that ain’t right.” “Pedestal” features perhaps the lyric which best distills the album’s overall atmosphere – “You abandoned me/How I suffer” – alongside some super-cool jazz trumpet from Andy Hague, and the blunted ‘Biscuit’ takes its chorus from a slurred Johnnie Ray vocal sample.
Moody smash single and soundtrack favorite “Glory Box” closes the album, sampling Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap II” and adding blazing, Ernie Isley-style guitar from Utley, before a dubbed-out outro. It was to gain an equally esteemed companion when, soon after, Tricky turned the same sample into the paranoid hip-hop piece “Hell Is Round The Corner” on his debut album, Maxinquaye.
Released on August 22, 1994, Dummy was one of the defining albums of the 90s, and a truly five-star affair. It garnered wall-to-wall critical praise, beat Tricky to the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 1995, inspired legions of imitators and remains rightly revered today.