Recently, I’ve been writing about several different styles of music, rock, soul, reggae, dub and indie rock. Today, I’ve decided to return to a style of music I’ve about before, trip hop. Previously, I’ve written about Leftfield, Massive Attack and the group this article is about, Portishead. In my last article about Portishead, I wrote about their debut album Dummy. Today, I’ve decided to write about the follow-up to Third, entitled Portishead. Released three years after Third, Portishead was released in September 1997. Recording took place during 1996 and 1997, with the album being produced by Portishead themselves. On its release, the album was critically acclaimed, and a huge commercial success. It reached number two in the UK album charts, and number twenty-one in the US Billboard 200. Unlike their debut album, the sound on this album has quite a different sound. The sound is harsher, not quite as polished as on their debut album. However, it’s still a good album, and now, I’ll tell you about the album.
Portishead opens with Cowboys, an eerie, edgy sound, like music that builds up the atmosphere in a thriller or horror film. After that, the atmosphere momentarily brightens, relieving the tension somewhat. Again, like on Third, this the music here reminds of something from a 1960s’ French film. When the Beth Gibbons’ vocal enters, the sound is much harsher, almost brittle sounding. The sound has quickly built up, keyboards, guitar and drums. There’s almost a discordant sound and feel to the track. Behind her vocal, the drums play really slowly, keyboards produce an eerie soundscape and a crackling sound is heard throughout the track. Scratches add to the edginess, discordant guitars shriek, complete with feedback. Everything about the track combines masterfully to produce one of the edgiest, otherworldly and spine tingling pieces of music you’ll hear in a long time. Excellent.
After the previous almost sinister atmosphere of Cowboys, All Mine is a different sounding track. It has a a brighter sound, tinged with drama. Horns open the track, cutting in and out, accompanied by a drum beating slowly. Beth’s vocal is slow and thoughtful, whilst behind her, the combination of horns and drum and percussion provide the mainstay of the track. A bass plays slowly, plodding along, providing a dark, near sinister sound. When guitars join in, this further increases the drama. They soar, chiming and screaming, filling out the sound. By this point, there’s a return to the edginess of the opening track, with the sound become almost menacing and threatening in nature. Here, it’s as if Portishead are providing a soundtrack to a short film, given the dramatic, sinister overtones of this brilliant piece of music.
It’s a quiet melodic keyboard that opens Undenied. However, just as you begin to enjoy the sound, the darkness reappears. A sample joins the mix, its sound ominous, sinister even. Even when Beth sings, this sample remains. Her voice by contrast, has a sweetness, as she delivers the lyrics surrounded by plodding drum beats, crackles and that sample. In some ways it detracts from her vocal. Thankfully, it eventually disappears. Annoyingly, it returns. I’m not suggesting it spoils the track. Quite the opposite. What I think it does is detract from Beth’s vocal. You end up focusing your attention on the sample, not Beth’s lovely vocal. Overall, though, Undenied is a good track, it’s just the use of that sample is overdone, and after a while, its constant repetition becomes tedious, and loses its effectiveness.
Half Day Closing begins with a dark, broody bass playing slowly, strings providing an ominous sounding backdrop. When Beth sings, her voice is hidden by effects. This adds to the already ominous soundscape that’s building. A Moog helps increase the forbidding sound. A sound like wind blowing on an open windswept landscape, completes the sound. Like previous tracks, the sound has a disquieting, sinister feel. It’s as if Portishead are creating a film score for some low budget horror movie, and they’re doing a brilliant job in doing so. Personally, I’d love to see the movie.
An acoustic guitar plays at the start of Over, it’s slow and repetitive, space left with Geoff Barrow’s playing. Then when Beth sings, she does so against a backdrop of the guitar playing. Eventually, a mixture of spacey sounding drums, accompanied by a bass, crackles and scratches. Occasionally, when Beth’s voice drops out of the arrangement a voice appears, just shouting one word. When she rejoins the arrangement, the arrangement has headed into eerie overdrive, complete with electric guitar solo. Over is an intriguing track, one that sends shivers down your spine, yet sounds fantastic.
As Humming begins, sounds reverberate, they emerge from your speakers sounding otherworldly, reminding me of many an old sci-fi film. After a couple of minutes of otherworldly sounds assaulting your senses, the arrangement opens up. Again, it’s just drum, bass and Beth’s vocal, complete with what seems trademark crackles. This brings to mind the lovely sound of old vinyl. From there on, the track moodily meanders, sounds emerging from the mix that have a threatening, dark, sound. Much of this is courtesy of the Moog, which plays a large part on this album. Humming is an epic track, for six minutes, your senses are assailed. Your mind plays tricks on you, your subconscious goes into overdrive. You wonder what’s that noise is? Such is the power of this magnificent track.
The start of Mourning Air is a dichotomy. On one hand Beth Gibbons’ vocal is thoughtful and dramatic, her voice clear, her phrasing perfect. However, the rest of the arrangement has a slightly discordant sound. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s just very different from the vocal. Sometimes, though, it seems to jar. Later, the bass enters, and the arrangement opens out, the arrangement seems to soften somewhat. Surrounding Beth’s vocal, are a multitude of sounds, creating an atmospheric soundscape. The addition of a trombone, which plays in the background really works, although sometimes, the sound is distant. Likewise, the guitar is another good addition, brightening the sound. Mostly, in keeping with the previous track, there is a darkness present, which here, adds an air of mystery to the proceedings.
Seven Months opens with a dramatic, sweeping, almost symphonic sound. From the opening bars, to when Beth sings and the strings enter, the drama is building up. Beth’s slow, powerful vocal soars high in the arrangement, as around her, samples aplenty emerge, drums play, a crackly sound can be heard. This sweeping, dramatic soundscape has an understated beauty, which is added to when a guitar plays. It has a retro sound, like something from a sixties film noire soundtrack. One thing I love about this track, is the addition of strings. Not only do they sound great, but they help increase the drama and tension present in the track. To me, this is the best track on the album, I love the moodiness and the dark undertones.
A bass sets the moody scene at the start of Only You, a slow pensive track. It’s accompanied by samples and scratches. When Beth sings, she too, gets in on the act, delivering the lyrics thoughtfully, her voice crystalline. As she sings, it’s mainly just bass, sound effects and occasionally scratches that you hear. Samples are repeated, scratches accompanying them. Then, suddenly, things change. Out of nowhere, the arrangement grows, a hugely dramatic sound interrupts Beth’s vocal. You think the arrangement will change totally. Thankfully, it doesn’t, this is just a minor hiatus. After a few seconds, normal service is resumed, and the arrangement returns to its previous understated beauty. Until the end of the track, it’s just a subtle arrangement that meanders beautifully, a dramatic soundscape made all the better by the addition of scratches, samples and sound effects. For me, when I listen to albums like this, I’m constantly trying to spot the samples used in the track. Here I spotted two. One is taken from the soundtrack to the Peter Sellers’ film Inspector Clouseau by Ken Thorne. The other is from US hip-hop group Pharcyde’s track She Said.
Elysium is the penultimate track on the album. It begins with a guitar reverberating accompanied by a discordant sound, not unlike an old radio tuning. After that, drums slow and plodding play, accompanied by samples and a piano playing. This track is quite similar in some ways to Half Day Closing. Beth Gibbon’s vocal is full of character, she’s singing the lyrics as if she believes them. Behind her, a guitar plays. Then suddenly, as if exhausted from expending all that energy during the track, it changes totally. A beautiful piano solo emerges, accompanied by a guitar subtly played. Just as you begin to enjoy it, bang, it’s gone, and the sound changes totally, back to how it was before, mixture of Beth’s soaring vocal, scratches and sound effects, complete with a moody, dark piano playing in the background. By the end of the track, I’ve enjoyed what’s a clever mixture styles created by instruments, samples, scratches and a great vocal.
Portishead closes with Western Eyes. Like other tracks on the album, it has an atmospheric introduction, string play, producing an eerie sound. A piano plays, its sound thoughtful, as it accompanies Beth’s ethereal sounding vocal. Drums played subtly join the track, they’re very much in the background, in keeping with the thoughtful, understated arrangement. Later, a sample from Hookers and Gin played by the Sean Atkins Experience is used. It’s accompanied by the occasional scratch, as it completes what is a beautiful, subtle song, the perfect way to end this album.
Portishead was a very different album to Portishead’s debut album Dummy. Here the sound isn’t quite as polished, it is grittier and has a harsher sound. The whole album sounds like a film soundtrack to a very sinister thriller. It’s one of these albums that’s perfect to chill out to. Sit back, and let the weird and wonderful sounds and effects that can be head on the album wash over you. In doing so, Portishead will take you on a surreal journey, one that takes you on a guided tour of their world. My question is, can you dare to set out on such an adventure? Are you brave enough? I hope you are, because although very different to their debut, it’s still a great album to listen to. Standout Tracks: Seven Months, Over You, Elysium and Western Eyes.