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Essential Records: Portishead's 'Dummy'

Posted by Amoebite, October 27, 2014 04:24pm | Post a Comment

Essential Records Portishead Dummy

During the summer of 1996, I became obsessed with Portishead. Dummy had been released two years earlier, so generally speaking, I was late to the game, but in the suburban town where I was about to start high school, I was definitely way ahead of the game. Because when it came to underground music, culture or film, there was no game.

I was just about to turn fifteen and leave all the friends I'd known for nearly a decade to attend the state's largest high school on my own. It was a deeply mopey time. At the same time, I was starting to realize that the music on Top 40 radio made me feel like something was missing, that musically-speaking, there must be more out there. So, I started tuning into the local alt-rock station after school, alone in my room, and that's where I first encountered Portishead's "Sour Times."


Portishead - Sour Times
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I hated this song. I thought it was irritating and abrasive. Singer Beth Gibbons would wail "Nobody loves me/it's true/not like you do" with her '60s jazz influenced vocals and I would get pissed off that I'd have to sit through it for the next three or four minutes. (For some reason I never went as far as actually turning the radio off.) Every time I heard it, I would get angry at it, angry that I had to sit through it, angry that the station's Music Director had poisoned the rotation with this grating, slightly terrifying few minutes of song. 

Beth Gibbons

Then one day I had the strange realization that, right now at least, this weird song didn't sound soooo bad. Pretty soon it actually started sounding good. Before long I was looking forward to hearing it. Then I went out to Best Buy, because that's where you could buy music in our suburban town, and bought the album. For the four years I was in high school, it never left my stereo. I would play Dummy on repeat a few times in a row, switch to Portishead's self-titled second album for a few spins, throw some newly-discovered PJ Harvey, Tricky, DJ Shadow or Massive Attack in there, and then go back to Portishead again.

Portishead DummyDummy opened my life to a world of music I knew nothing about. I had never heard of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. I had vaguely heard of Isaac Hayes, but never given him much thought. From the band's (at the time) impossible-to-find short film To Kill a Dead Man I learned about and fell in love with film noir. I also discovered the strange, slightly antisocial allure of ferreting out rare singles in sacred big city record stores, and uncovering bootleg versions of unreleased tracks sung in French. Dummy was the first album ever where I could tell you the exact track listing and who played on every track.

As an adult, I was sort of shocked to hear people describe Dummy as seductive and cool. Today I gave it another listen to see if I'd get this vibe nearly two decades after first hearing the album. Well, objectively, I get the "cool" idea, but subjectively it still sounds like it did when I was an alienated and increasingly depressed teenager: like a desperate woman reaching out with all she's got left, aching for some form of hope and connection, and barring that, to at least not be silenced.

Alanis Morissette

See, for most of high school, I didn't know a single person who cared about music like I did, let alone the kind of music I liked. I did have one friend whose love for Alanis Morrisette rivaled my love for Portishead, and so I entered into a really low-level devil's pact with her, wherein I would go see every single Alanis Morrisette show she wanted to see, as long as--once Portishead toured again--she'd go see them with me. (I figured that, by the time she actually was at the show and heard Portishead for the first time, it would be too late for her to go back on her part of the deal.) Needless to say, from the period the band stopped touring in 1998 to the time I graduated high school, I saw Alanis Morrisette a WEALTH of times and Portishead zero. But I kept listening to the band's two albums several times a day. As my teenage blues were turning into an increasingly real depression, Beth's melancholy, yearning voice made me feel like I wasn't so alone.

When I was 21, Beth Gibbons released a solo album and came to the city where I was going to college, finally happy, independent and surrounded by friends who shared my love of music. After the show, one of my best friends and I were driving away from the theater and he pointed out the crew loading out all the equipment and all the fans huddled together in the November cold for a possible glimpse of the singer. We both laughed about this pathetic level of fandom for a few seconds, then I got this clenched feeling in the pit of my stomach and said, "We have to go back." So we stood outside in the cold, waiting with strangers for an hour or so--for what, I didn't really know. At intervals my friend would say that we should probably go soon, that they'd probably gone out of a different exit.

PortisheadThen the door opened and they came out. I was scuttling like a starstuck sixteen-year-old/hermit crab around Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons and out of nowhere I blurted out to Geoff Barrow, "Your music saved my life!" Yeah, it sounded ridiculous, but it was true. Beth gave me a hug. She didn't give everyone a hug, but she gave me a hug. Then afterwards my friend and I went to a college party and I told everyone I knew about what had just happened, and some people cared, and just like in high school, a lot of people were like, "Who?"

It has been a long time since then, and Portishead has faded from my regular rotation, which--now that I have infinitely more than ten albums--doesn't even exist. Not long after the band announced they'd been working on new material, I saw them at their first live show in over ten years at the All Tomorrow's Parties "Nightmare Before Christmas" festival in England, where I was attending grad school. I was so cool about it. I had grown up and MOVED ON. "I'm probably not going to really care now," I told my friends, "but those albums really meant a lot to me when I was growing up." In the end, I stood in the front row during both shows, and during both shows I shook hands with the band members when they reached out into the crowd at the end.

Portishead ThirdThird was released in 2008, and if I thought "Sour Times" was heavy listening, this was some next level stuff. By then my love of music had led me into deeper (and sometimes darker) crannies of the music world, so that after getting into Swans, Suicide, and the Birthday Party, "Sour Times" no longer seems so menacing. But that's all down to hearing that first Portishead album, and getting hungry for music and through that passion to another, more meaningful way of life: a way of life dedicated to art and not just punching the clock.

Dummy is being reissued on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl November 10 to mark the album's 20th anniversary.

-- by Alison Stolpa

Relevant Tags

Portishead (15), Dummy (2), Essential Records (35), Pj Harvey (17), Tricky (7), Dj Shadow (26), Massive Attack (9), Nina Simone (19), Billie Holiday (18), Isaac Hayes (3), Geoff Barrow (2), Beth Gibbons (2), Alanis Morissette (2)