Great depression REVIEW
The Daily Telegraph November 28, 1997
THEIR debut album, Dummy, won the Mercury Prize a couple of years
ago, thanks to its ground-breaking fusion of hip-hop rhythms and
ethereal vocals. Before long, dinner parties were being conducted
to the sound of Beth Gibbons's anguished wailings and whimperings,
against a backdrop of spooky beats, weird noises and what sounded
like samples from outer space. Almost overnight, Portishead (named
after the Bristol Channel home town of the band's founder and
resident clever-clogs, Geoff Barrow) had become deeply trendy.
If there were
an award for miserableness, Portishead would walk away with that,
too. For all the invention and newness of their music - sometimes
they sound like nothing you've ever heard before - they make distinctly
uneasy listening. This is especially true live (you can't turn
them down or put something more cheerful on) and the London leg
of their UK tour was one of the most enervating concerts I can
This is not
to suggest that Portishead should have added Happy Talk or The
Sun Has Got His Hat On to their repertoire; clearly, their mission
here was to explore the darker things in life. With songs such
as Over and Undenied, which speak eloquently of anguish and alienation,
they did just that.
after half an hour or so I was yearning for emotional variety
- a little warmth, a smidgen of hopefulness.
Not a bit of
it. The astringency and sense of isolation evoked by these near-static
performers was so relentless that in the end I switched off. On
the new album (called simply Portishead ) Gibbons's voice may
cover an even greater tonal range than before, but what she actually
sings about is more or less the same thing, over and over: obsession,
Even so, it
was performed here with admirable diligence, economy and restraint,
with some particularly snappy drumming, and illuminated by lights
and effects which matched the music to perfection. One neat trick
involved projecting an oscilloscope reading of Gibbons's voice
on to the backdrop.
virtuosity and technical trickery could not disguise the awful
emptiness at the heart of this show, and after an hour and a half
of bleak soundscapes it came as a huge relief when a second encore
failed to materialise.