Happy 25th Anniversary to Portishead’s debut album Dummy, originally released August 22, 1994.
A true debut album, only preceded by two singles, Dummy hit hard. For a trio from Bristol, just starting out as a band, Portishead achieved something miraculous. Beth Gibbons’ swirling vocals are compelling and delicate, pitch perfect despite barely any real singing experience prior to recording the Mercury Prize winning album. Adrian Utley’s guitar riffs meld with the downbeat, sample-heavy production from Geoff Barrow—each arrangement unique but somehow a perfect complement to the others.
Emerging from the Bristol music scene of the early ‘90s, the unlikely trio created a sound rooted in a crate-dug collage of underappreciated albums, finding a new life via this fledgling style. But history has not been kind to trip hop; the album’s legacy as ubiquitous coffee shop music does a great disservice to the dub influenced, room-shaking bass in tracks like “Strangers” and “Wandering Star.” A band whose moodiness would have been right at home with Joy Division or Cocteau Twins, their despair has long been misconstrued as background music.
That contrast, the sexy soundtrack against lonely poetry, is always at play on Dummy. It’s an album that is so thoroughly enjoyable that the bleak, opaque lyrics are often overlooked. The gripping emotion of their sound seems to override sentiments like, “Who am I, what and why / 'Cause all I have left is my memories of yesterday / Oh these sour times,” the hook on a song that most of us would unwittingly queue up to “set the mood.”
While Dummy is an expertly mixed electronic album, Barrow is much more a disciple of hip-hop than the thriving British rave scene of 1994. “Wandering Star” has the lumbering, heavy hits of bass and distinctive scratching of minimalist ‘80s rappers, like Eric B. & Rakim, but with Gibbons’ lilting coo of “the darkness, the blackness, forever.” “Numb” is another ode to hopelessness, set to sparse hip-hop beats. Gibbons wails, “but this loneliness / It just won't leave me alone / oh no,” a sentiment generally found miles away from the vocals laid over tracks like these.
“Glory Box,” the final track on Dummy has gone on to become one of the most instantly recognizable relics of the trip hop heyday. Used in a number of movies, TV shows, and commercials, the song perfectly captures the complex alchemy of the trio. Utley’s twisted riffs create a delicious tension with Gibbons’ snarls and purrs, all of which is snatched away without warning, leaving the listener with an eerie, thumping drum loop.
Even before Hollywood music coordinators got their hands on Dummy, Portishead had a cinematic feel. The album opens with “Mysterons,” a trippy track straight from the set of a 60’s sci-fi film. The spooky sample in “Biscuit,” a repetition of the haunting threat, “I’ll never fall in love again,” has the slowed down sound of a horror movie monster. While Dummy lends itself to film, Portishead had created their own drama from the start.
An album that is definitively part of the trip hop canon, Dummy is a nearly perfect expression of a short-lived genre, with few acts that had the same impact as Portishead. Critically lauded and commercially successful, the band released two more albums over the course of the next 20 years. Their sound has stayed consistent with the genre they helped to create, yet somehow remains relevant and fresh. And though the parts are exceptional in their own right, the sum is greater in this case, and Dummy is the result of this perfectly balanced equation.