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Knitwear and 808s: A Review of Portishead’s Self-Titled

Despite its release in 1997, Portishead’s self-titled has remained one of the most demonstrative of the trip-hop genre, characterized by minimalist, crisp drums with a prominent sample leading the melody. Though instead of flirting with the smoky quality of the music, Portishead succeeds at becoming the sound itself. The Bristol-based band’s debut album, Dummy highlighted the potential for trip-hop as a genre fusion between hip-hop — their self-titled work doubles down and takes this aesthetic even further. The guitarist, Adrian Utley, described the band as obsessive when it comes to perfecting their image of sound in their 1998 documentary, Welcome to Portishead: “For us… it’s a whole picture from beginning to the end. It’s gotta be right. Every angle is covered. It’s complete, nothing is missing.” Down to its last record scratch and dusky drum, Portishead is a textured exploration of vulnerability in all its layers.

Apart from the classic trip-hop sound of acts like Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead uses their signature blend of crackling vocals, resulting from sample-abuse, and introduces a set of Roland 808 drums to create a sound resembling a noir spy film. A hypnotic guitar slightly peeks out as the brass section rings through with a timeless clarity. Should they choose, Portishead also decorates the tone with a few sparse key notes, careful not to take the stage from the other elements. Beth Gibbons consistently considers each component and makes excellent use of her tonality and songwriting to glue it all together. Despite her unique vocal flips, Gibbons uses the music to carry her voice, riding above it where she finds the sonic room.

The album’s first track, “Cowboys” displays this cohesion and strikes early; building a rhythmic trance, the track carries on for the first three minutes before totally shifting — the drums are suspended and the listener realizes their reliance on the percussion. The lagging record-scratch remains while the listener searches for the loop. Instead, they’re confronted with Beth Gibbons’s vocals: “Undefied, no signs of regret / Your swollen pride assumes respect” As the track fades, it becomes clear that Portishead’s relaxed sound paired with its piercing writing demands an active listener to receive its complexity.

Taking an experimental approach on their previous album, Portishead outlines the main components of trip-hop to the new listener while producing their acclaimed-signature sound in as many different ways as possible. There’s clear confidence in their abilities. “Humming” maintains the longest run-time out of the tracks while building a space for Gibbons to confess her longing for both mental and physical connection. The slightly reverberated bass in the song’s loop allows Gibbons to truly take her time in her confessions; she lets the music run free in-between verses to return the courtesy. This dynamic fills the six minutes with a wonder of what’s to come in the latter-half of the album.

“Elysium” displays a whirl of the album’s established musical and lyrical tropes as Gibbons finds strength behind the drums. Despite the fearless performance, the track nearly repeats the flow of “Seven Months” and resembles a review of the album instead of a new, generative idea. The confrontational writing in the latter leads the horns to a dominant performance that begs the question: “Why should I forgive you?” Where the album repeats itself, Portishead generates a clearer understanding of its texture. This refined understanding points to a strong conceptual album that doesn’t lose focus, at the potential expense of sounding redundant.

The band maintains it’s elusive-factor up to the last track, “Western Eyes”. It’s among the few tracks across the project where Gibbons reveals her tone without any audio-effects. As a closer, the songs evaluates western values: “They have values of a certain taste / The innocent they can hardly wait / To crucify, invalidating / Turning to dishonesty” Instead of painting an image of a smoky-night, Gibbons writes to bring explicit awareness to the hubris and hypocrisy in the present-world. Given the secluded writing process of Gibbons, the song plays as a lament for those whose livelihoods are at the mercy of illegitimate western values, including her band. The texture of the album drives this message without many distractions in the sonic space.

Portishead is a substantive display of brave, clear writing with a multi-dimensional sound to match. Its timbre matches the crime-mystery genre of film and media. During my first listen, I immediately heard its similarity to Angelo Badalamenti’s work in Twin Peaks with the timeless quality of Andrew Hale’s composed-soundtrack for the L.A. Noire video game. The blend of hip-hop and jazz works really well and advocates for their interaction, further. Out of their three albums, Portishead will always stand as a flex of the band’s ability to create a cohesive image with everything they’ve got.

Listen to the album here.

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Mason Stoutamire

Mason Stoutamire

UCI Literary Journalism Student, Big Brother, and Music Fan