Classic Album: Portishead 'Dummy'

“‘Dummy’ has aged much more successfully than any other British album of the era.”
Portishead 'Dummy'
Is there a more sneeringly dismissive term in pop criticism than ‘dinner party music’? To describe a CD as ‘a bit dinner party’ is to imply that it possesses the kind of bland inoffensiveness that won’t disrupt the chinking of cutlery on plates. Moreover (and, perhaps, more damningly), ‘dinner party music’ is supposed to make a statement about its owner - it’s music as a personal PR move.

Portishead’s Dummy may have been one of the most critically-fawned-over albums of the 1990s, but its smoky, late-night ambience also made it the perfect accompaniment to delicious soirées. This remains a source of great consternation to its makers. Speaking to The Guardian last year, band member Geoff Barrow complained, “You’re writing music because you’re really concerned about certain things and then it gets put on to entertain twats at trendy fondue dinner parties.”

Barrow’s probably over-dramatising things (also, how long has it been since fondue was “trendy”?), but you can understand his frustration. A comment he made to Uncut magazine gets closer to the heart of the matter: “The idea of people having dinner parties with it meant that the mood of the record was overlooked a bit… Because that wasn’t really very nice.” It’s certainly true that passive listeners would’ve been left unaware of the album’s lyrical themes, which, as Barrow correctly points out, really aren’t very nice at all. Vague sci-fi and spy movie motifs are threaded through the album, but they’re the only remotely playful aspects to be found within what is an incredibly bleak album lyrically. “Refuse to surrender / Strung out until ripped apart / Who dares, dares to condemn / All for nothing”, sings Beth Gibbons on opener ‘Mysterons’, and the record’s mood doesn’t lift thereafter.

In 1994 I was far too young to be holding dinner parties, but ownership of a copy of ‘Dummy’ was undoubtedly a statement-making move in my school. By late 1994, the popularity of Britpop lights such as Blur and Oasis had already rendered them a touch passé. ‘Dummy’ - with its mysterious artwork and (at that stage, anyway) absence of any flag-waving singles - seemed to offer one of the first steps into ‘proper’ music fandom.

‘Dummy’ may have seemed like the ideal antidote to Britpop’s leery boisterousness but, in reality, Portishead made music that was as quintessentially British as, say, ‘Parklife’. Sure, the building-block influences (hip-hop, the blues) are as American as apple pie, but the combination of these with rain-streaked melancholia was an entirely British concoction.

Portishead can’t claim to be innovators in their field, though: in terms of Anglicising hip-hop, Massive Attack undoubtedly got there first. But ‘Dummy’ is a better album than anything produced by their Bristolian peers. Its greatest strength lies in its adhesion to the classic album template: there are ten excellent, fully-formed tracks, and absolutely no filler. The musical palette - hip-hop scratching, martial drums, dubby bass, Sixties spy-movie guitar and wobbly theramin - may not alter much from track to track, but the songs themselves are varied and hookily memorable.

‘Sour Times’ and ‘Glory Box’ will be the most familiar songs to the uninitiated (if only for their regular use in the Nineties zeitgeist-riding drama This Life), but ‘Biscuit’ is my favourite. In the verses Gibbons sketches a typically depressing situation (“Haunted I tell myself, yet I still wander / Down inside, it’s tearing me apart’ - bloody hell). For its chorus (if you could call it that), Gibbons steps aside and the voice of 1950s jazz pianist Johnnie Ray is piped in from beyond the grave and slowed down to a sub-funereal pace. It’s terrifying. And completely awesome.

A proper appraisal of ‘Dummy’ isn’t complete without mention of another musical taboo phrase: ‘trip-hop’. Having been debased through misuse by the likes of Morcheeba and Sneaker Pimps, by the Noughties trip-hop was considered unspeakably naff, and most of its key acts (including Portishead) sought to distance themselves from the genre. But trip-hop’s influence has seeped through into some highly successful recent albums. Barrow might baulk (especially given his criticism of the album’s producer Mark Ronson), but Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ is hugely indebted to ‘Dummy’.

Fifteen years after its release, ‘Dummy’ has aged much more successfully than any other British album of the era, trip-hop or otherwise. That’s doubly surprising given its modishness at the time. So, perhaps those hosts and hostesses of mid-Nineties dinner parties deserve some credit. Geoff Barrow might, however, respectfully disagree.

Words by Christopher Monk

Released: August 1994
Producer: Portishead / Adrian Utley

TRACKLISTING
1. ‘Mysterons’
2. ‘Sour Times’
3. ‘Strangers’
4. ‘It Could Be Sweet’
5. ‘Wandering Star’
6. ‘Numb’
7. ‘Roads’
8. ‘Pedestal’
9. ‘Biscuit’
10. ‘Glory Box’

MUSICIANS
Geoff Barrow - Rhodes, programming, drums, string arrangements
Beth Gibbons - vocals
Adrian Utley - guitar, bass, theremin, string arrangements
Clive Deamer - drums
Andy Hague - trumpet
Dave McDonald - nose flute
Richard Newell - drum programming
Neil Solman - Rhodes, Hammond
Strings Unlimited - Er, strings

1994: IN THE NEWS
Kurt Cobain is found dead. He had committed suicide via a self-inflicted gunshot.
The Channel Tunnel opens.
Labour leader John Smith dies suddenly.
OJ Simpson flees from the police after he fails to surrender to them on charges of murdering his ex-wife and her companion.
Brazil wins the football World Cup for the first time in twenty-four years.

1994: THE ALBUMS
Green Day - ‘Dookie’
Blur - ‘Parklife’
Jeff Buckley - ‘Grace’
Soundgarden - ‘Superunknown’
Oasis - ‘Definitely Maybe’

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