Portishead - Dummy

There’s a certain type of drum programming that lets you know that the world is a cold and unforgiving place, that nothing is going to be OK. It’s the kind of drum programming you hear on three of the great bleak, depressive masterpieces of the mid-’90s: Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Portishead’s Dummy. In retrospect, it’s weird as hell that Portishead got play on alt-rock radio stations, alongside Bush and Silverchair, when they’d really just made one of the greatest rap records of their era. Dummy had exactly zero rapping, but it was a rap record for sure. Geoff Barrow was a clear disciple of DJ Premier and the Bomb Squad and Pete Rock, but he also had that drizzly British sensibility that made his tracks feel vaguely gothic. Beth Gibbons sang with all the heartbreak and gravitas of a Mary J. Blige or a Toni Braxton. But she had none of their fire, and instead she had the sort of icy rural-English reserve that you could hear in the quieter parts of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love. When America’s backpack-rap underground came into its own a few years later, many of the producers on that scene looked at Barrow and Gibbons (and Adrian Utley, the jazzhead guitarist who contributed to every song on Dummy and who became a full-fledged member after its release) with a certain reverence. These people understood, better than most rap producers, how to wring melancholic atmosphere out of cut-up shards of old records. Dummy sounds like an album absolutely out of time. And listening now, it’s weird to think that the reaction to it was ever: Hey! Listen to this cool new sound!

We music critics love to sniff out scenes and shape music into narratives, and what was happening in Bristol in the early ’90s presented a perfect opportunity for that stuff: Here was this loose crew of artists playing around with old music and rap signifiers and dub textures, using them to create this unbearably fashionable mood-music that seemed like the sort of thing ravers listened to on the cold morning drives home. (Maybe it was. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I also wasn’t a music critic 20 years ago, but I totally would’ve been doing this stuff if I had been.) Trip-hop, as the critical massive unfortunately came to call it, was supposed to be the music of the future; witness, for instance, Tricky’s role in The Fifth Element as “guy who gets blown up.” It’s an understandable way of looking at what was happening with this Bristol scene, which seemed to have no precedent at the time. But then a spectral masterpiece like Dummy ends up getting short shrift, becoming a paragraph in a trend piece. Portishead were from Bristol, just like Massive Attack and Tricky, and Barrow did have some connections to the Wild Bunch crew. But even though there were surface similarities to what those other artists were doing, Barrow and Gibbons succeeded in coming up with a sound that belonged to them entirely, a sound that outlived its context.

On paper, nothing Portishead did really made sense. They took the themerins from ’50s horror movies and the twangy guitars from ’60s spy movies, sounds that had been there to help trigger an instinctive adrenal response, and turned them into downbeat hymns. They took the record-scratching from New York rap — Barrow’s timing on the turntables was as close as anyone else came to DJ Premier-level perfection — but drained it of all hardness. They used breakbeats the way jazz bandleaders used brushstroke drums, letting them whisper instead of thwack. Even when the drums were loud, the way they were on “Strangers,” they weren’t there to crush. Gibbons had some chilly Billie Holiday poise in her voice, but she also had the ancestral sadness of a British folksinger like Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. Her lyrics were self-pitying wallows of a type that Robert Smith would have to salute; when she wailed “nobody loves me, it’s true” on “Sour Times,” her follow-up — “not like you do” — felt like an afterthought. These were songs about absolute crushing romantic desolation, about wrapping yourself in misery. And yet they somehow became an entire generation’s greatest makeout soundtrack. I don’t know why or how Dummy worked like white-people Jodeci, but it sure as hell did.

That Portishead sound was deceptively simple, and plenty of people tried to recreate it — I’m thinking of the Sneaker Pimps, or Morcheeba — but nobody quite got it right. Portishead more or less left that sound alone after that first album. They spent three years recording their self-titled follow-up, and it felt like forever, especially as word leaked out that Barrow was putting together his own orchestral spy-movie soundtracks just so he could sample the things. Portishead moved from that Dummy sound into something darker and headier, something that had less to do with breakbeats and wickety-wickety scratches. But it was a quickie follow-up compared to Third, which came out 11 years after Portishead and which left behind Portishead’s old sound completely switching up its style on every track and embracing punishing electro and doom metal. So that original sound was a flame that burned bright and fast. We didn’t know it was happening at the time. It took a while for the album to attain dorm-room-fixture status. But listening to it now, it serves as, among other things, a lesson: Don’t neglect something because of where it fits into the narrative that you’ve already concocted for it. It might turn out to be more resonant and important than you know. Now, let’s watch some videos.

Comments (43)
  1. i cannot live without this album. also, i am officially old.

  2. One of my favorite albums of all-time. It’s truly special.

    Also, I was three years old when this album was released, ugh.

  3. Now this is an anny worth talking about. Dummy is spectacular on so many levels.

  4. Nothing against Linda Thompson, but when you talk about Fairport Convention, you’re probably thinking of Sandy Denny.

  5. “Roads” is in a perpetual tie with “Unravel” and “Teardrop” for my favorite pop ballad of all time.

    And Portishead is one of those artists who don’t even need you to make a case for their enduring relevance and influence. James Blake, the Weeknd, Phantogram, FKA twigs, Lana Del Rey, Warpaint , Clams Casino, King Krule… you’d have to be deaf not to hear it.

    • Oh here’s another great Portishead memory:

      Once upon a time, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman did a column for the NYT that was just called “How Can It Feel This Wrong?” and it was just a video of the Roseland NYC performance of “Roads.” I can’t remember what he was so upset about but I think it had something to do with the debt ceiling. Classic Krugz.

    • and Burial! Burial is an heir of Portishead.

  6. I think the point could have been made just as well without slagging Massive Attack and Tricky along the way.

  7. My new girlfriend is not a music person. And she really digs all the weird ass indie stuff I listen to. Dummy was the first thing I bought her. Not a burned copy. A brand new copy. I play this album when I have get togethers at my home as few of my friends are music junkies. Invariably people ask me “who is this?”
    I dare them to guess when it came out. Most people say “Last week?”

    And that says all you need to know about Dummy

  8. I’ve posted a year-end “best penultimate tracks” for the past two years on this site. Part of that was because there were so many good second-to-last tracks in 2012, the other part is because of “Dummy”

    When I explain to people my obsession with penultimate tracks (and subsequently closing tracks) I immediately cite “Biscuit” and “Glory Box”. Even though this album has been out for 20 years now, every time “Biscuit” winds down, I feel like the album is ending. My brain already starts going, “Man, what a classic, timeless album, well done Portishead!”

    But then “Glory Box” starts seeping into the frame and it feels like a bonus. I feel unworthy. It’s at THAT point where I realize Portishead are legends. Without having to do that old CD trick of putting a bunch of silence at the end of the album to create that sense of a “bonus track” — Portishead pull it off by simply sequencing their album like professionals.

    So when I post my favorite penultimate tracks at the end of this year, know that it’s primarily because of this album.

    • I know exactly what you mean. The idea that the single best song (yes, overplayed, but it’s still the best) is the final song – it was almost as if they tried to downplay it.

      Back in 1994 … I was 17 … Glory Box was kind of everywhere. In movies, at parties, on the radio. It was, in a way, the song that summed up that year for me, anyway – moody, dour, disturbing and emotional

      To me, it almost exists outside of the album, by itself, a song out of time.

  9. As a side note (had to separate this from my previous post) I heard something that turned my stomach recently.

    I was talking to the lead singer of a local band that has ties with The Flaming Lips camp. He was asking me what I thought about their Beatles cover album, I said, “meehhhh,” and he said they were already talking about what they were going to cover next.

    He mentioned two albums, but the first out of his mouth was Portishead’s “Dummy” and I almost lost my shit. Many, many “NOS!” flew out of my mouth. “Did they not see what Geoff did to The Weeknd when he tried to SAMPLE one of their songs?” Anyway, figured I’d give you a fair warning in case that terrible idea materializes.

    Also one of my other friends had this great gem, “You know what album I want to see The Flaming Lips cover? A Flaming Lips album.”

    • Holy shit your friends comment is PRICELESS. Also, your post gave me pause. If you told me ten years ago that the FL were going to cover Dummy I would’ve thought “That’s an interesting concept. What kind of twist would they put on that?” Cut to today…..the second I read your post about the FL covering Dummy my mind started screaming “NO!!” And then my left arm fell off and my dog died.

      And I suppose that sums up my feelings about Wayne and Co. pretty succinctly.

  10. Roads is up there on my list of saddest songs of all time

  11. I can remember exactly the first time I heard Portishead driving home late on a Saturday night listening to Brave New World on KCRW here in Los Angeles. I was a sophomore and the song was Glory Box. Thank you Tricia Halloran.

    I’m pretty sure Sour Times on the Roseland NYC album is one of the most powerful live versions of any song ever.

  12. Kind of surprised the track Chase the Tear hasn’t been name checked in this article for how fresh they still sound and it’s the only thing they’ve released in what? 10 years? oh and it was released in 2009! It’s been 5 years since new portishead.

  13. This might have been the first album that I really connected with emotionally as a teenager. I had a dubbed tape copy (with Soul Coughing’s “Ruby Vroom” on the other side) and carried it in my Walkman absolutely everywhere for the entire 10th grade. Obviously there was a lot of lame adolescent self-fashioning going on (“Just in case any of you were wondering, I’m the weird sad kid!”) but my connection to the music was real. “Wandering Star” can still put a lump in my throat.

    Thanks for the reminder. Gonna play this loud today.

  14. Best weed album ever…. Nothing comes close. If you think this shit sounds good sober try it with a blunt.

  15. This thread has me physically worked up. I love you guys. I decided today was “Devendra Banhart” day and was on album #3 in my office. But I keep clicking over to this thread and have thus switched to “Portishead” day.

    How can an album be timeless, fresh, sad, weird, concise, airy, exhilirating at the same time?

    Seriously, is this a top 20 album in the history of rock history? Or am I caught up in this moment?

  16. I was 16, slightly stoned at a party, my head resting on the speaker. I was goose bumping after the first few bars and have been interested in them since. It was the classiest, coolest, chillest, and dancey sound i had ever heard. Then i was shocked to find out it was this band Portishead ide heard about in the music press. I thought they were a metal band or something couldn’t get past the name of the band to check their music.

  17. I recently found a copy of dummy in the used vinyl section of the music shop and couldn’t fathom why somebody would let their copy go.. Then I indulged myself with listening 3 times back to back when I brought it home with the thought mine now, losers weepers. I’m a selfish man.

  18. First time I heard anything resembling Portishead was when I played the first Silent Hill. I was 15 and the intro music by Akira Yamaoka floored me. I thought the music was so original.

    Three years later, I discover Portishead’s “Dummy” and realize Yamaoka was just a crazy Portishead fan.


  19. I first borrowed this album from an acquaintance in high school, in 98 I think. He was a strange guy, not great social skills, but he had much better taste than me.

  20. Is it too late to make this one of my favorite albums? I keep forgetting about it!

  21. I remember when this first came out, and the utter strangeness of it, how it turned melancholy into something virtually tangible. To say there was nothing else like didn’t convey the reality – it was purely alien. It changed my life, pushed me beyond guitars/drums/bass.

    To their credit, I’ve never found anything like it (apart from the second album).

    As a side note, I remember reading that Barrow recording music, pressed it on to vinyl and then sampled that. Or was that just for the second allbum? Anyone know?

  22. Also – I open up Stereogum and have a choice to read about Grace or Dummy turning 20. I have to choose Dummy first.

  23. I stumbled upon Dummy this past year immediately fell in love with it. I would sit in my car and put “Wandering Star” on repeat just to hear that haunting refrain again and again. Thing is – you could be in a bad place when you decide to listen to some dark, trip-hop like Dummy – but you end up appreciating that bad place a little more after. Gotta love Portishead.

  24. It isn’t a rap album- it melds noir and atmosphere with hip hop beats and scratches, and record scratches, and all sorts of good stuff. That is why the much maligned but really exceptionally apt term “trip hop” was coined. No need to reinvent the wheel by calling this a rap album.

    The album is really phenomenal and totally committed to its cinematic atmosphere. There is richness in there, though I suspect some might find in monotonous. I don’t. It is an obsessive masterpiece.

    Also, no need to malign the other bands that haven’t been raised into the canon. The reason why it is so grating is that complete CURRENT trifles are tossed around by Tom as great and exciting and fun and poptimist. You know what other songs that maybe aren’t classics, but are pretty good as songs of that era? “Tape Loop” by Morcheeba, and “Six Underground” by Sneaker Pimps. The Mono album had some OK songs on it. Massive Attack were brilliant, and they were different. It’s OK! Go listen to “Protection”- that song is essentially perfect.

    • Has this ever been replicated? People have pointed me towards Massive Attack and trip-hop, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Zero 7 and Air is elevator music. FKA Twigs is good, but well… any more of that sexy-self-loathing-fragile-feminine-noir-soul music?

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