The Word, October, 1997, p 18
Three years on from the Mercury winning debut album Dummy, Portishead
return with an album which at one point looked as if it would
never see the light of day, such was the tortuous soulsearching
of Geoff Barrow, self proclaimed perfectionist and founder of
the band. Whatever dark night of the soul he went through, it
has paid of with the triumph which is Portishead.
From the doom laden atmospheric opener 'Cowboys', to the heartbreaking
finale of 'Western Eyes', Portishead is a moonlit trip through
shadows and tears: a journey to a deep and dark subterrania where
the brokenhearted reside.
Whatever demons haunt Geoff Barrow, lyricist Beth Gibbons' own
ghosts seem blatantly obvious. Judging by the lyrical content
of this album, she is one brokenhearted lady.
With a voice that is at once mournful and defiant, broken and
vengeful Beth Gibbons is the finest female singer in Britain today.
It is a voice that is stripped down to the emotional core, like
Billy Holiday singing from the depths of hell. Her presence is
the extra ingredient which lifts Barrow's aural soundscapes into
There is no great musical progression on Portishead, rather a
refinement of the band's sound.
'Cowboys', released as a limited edition single two months ago
is typical of the majority of the album. The now trademark trip
hop beats mix with Barrow's scratching technique and the brutal
intermittent slashing guitar Hnes of Adrian Utley underpin Gibbons'
vocal line with its menacing refrain, "Oh, if you take these
things from me" promising danger and violence.
The sense of menace continues on current single'AII Mine' with
Gibbons coming on like a preying mantis seducing her lover. "Make
no mistake/You shan't escape/Tethered and tied there's nowhere
to hide/From me" she moans as a John Barry-like brass section
'Undenied'follows, with it's crackling gramophone intro, a bass-line
like a heartbeat and a distraught vocal with fatalistic Iyrics
like "Now that I've found you/And seen behind those eyes?/How
can I carry on?" Gibbons voice grows fainter, dying with
the music, leaving only a simple keyboard line ladened with sorrow
to conclude the song.
'Half Day Closing' is an atmospheric funeral song to younger
happier times. "In the days the golden days/When everybody
knew what they wanted/lt ain't here today" cries the vocalist
her voice distorted and disembodied, floating above the moog synths,
howling feedback and discordant guitar lines which fade to the
sound of a harsh wind blowing.
'Over' is the sound of a mental breakdown set to music whilst
'Humming' comes on like a vampiric clarion call to the creatures
of the night: the Theremin and strings which underpin this song
reminiscent of a 6Os B movie soundtrack.
'Mourning Air' is a song filled with confusion and fear, with
the narrator reaching out as she falls into an emotional chasm.
'Seven Months' finds her in more defiant mood. With a guitar line
as sharp as a razor, Gibbons proclaims "As low as I can be/l
will never resign myself/To the trial I see."
'Only You' is probably the finest song on the album. Incorporating
space as an instrument intermingled with horns and a delicate
piano solo which echoes Gibbons voice, light as the wings of a
butterfly, delicate and beautiful with colour and tinged with
sadness. Torch songs don't come much better than this.
'Elysium' finds Gibbons angry and accusing, yet proud and defiant
in her pain. Among creeping beats and menacing piano chords she
proclaims "you can't deny how I feel/And you can't decide
Things are brought to an end with 'Western Eyes', which contains
the most effective use of strings on the album. "Yes I'm
breaking at the seams just like you" comes the refrain, making
her pain universal, encompassing us all, as the string section
stirs like a hive of angry wasps.
Beth Gibbons is famous as being interview shy. She leaves it
to Geoff Barrow to be the spokesman for the band. When you make
music as emotionally naked as the songs found on Portishead, attempting
to explain yourself to a journalist is a pointless exercise.
This album may be lost in the plethora of excellent releases
of 1997. It may be viewed as too downbeat, too fatalistic. It
does not deserve to be. It is as good a record as Dummy, if not
better. Portishead is the place where the music of this century
meets; from jazz and modern classical, through pop, rock, dance
and hiphop to the film scores of the sixties and seventies, this
is a musical and emotional summation of all that is great in music.
And it points the way to the future. It may not be the happiest
place on the planet, but it's somewhere I for one will be visiting
time and time again.