Trip-Hop on Permanent Smolder
When this album of lushly turned-out melancholy tiptoed into pop consciousness in 1994, there wasn't a category for it. Music snobs and critics noticed the drum programming and the swooshing filter sweeps, and concluded it was some new offshoot of dance music—"trip-hop," they called it, aligning Portishead with its neighbors from Bristol, Massive Attack. In the U.K., the dance community embraced Portishead first; in the U.S., it was the alternative rock crowd, who heard Beth Gibbons's fragile, dream-state vocals and decided Portishead was indie-girl angst at a slower speed.
Portishead exploited this in-between-ness—at times Dummy feels like a listless background drone, the audio wallpaper that envelops patrons of swanky restaurants. But behind that cabaret noir mood is something more: Fragmented stories that rise out of deep sadness and spread heavy vibes all over the room. Gibbons sings like she's shrouded in mist. She pouts like a starlet, and projects a drifty, anything-but-centered persona that's essential to "Sour Times" and "Numb," two (of many) doleful, slow songs that became unlikely singles.
Dummy won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for 1994 (the U.K. equivalent of the Album of the Year Grammy) and grew into a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Gibbons and multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow's stroke of genius was the realization that the same nuts and bolts of electronic music, which most DJs were using to create pulse-pounding excitement, could be repurposed to serve gentler, spookier ends. They conjure not just beats but an atmospheric world, often just out of the hovering wails from overdriven guitars. Then Gibbons tells about what it's like to live inside such a place—where you walk around in a disconsolate daze, and life moves slowly, and there's always the chance for further reflection.
Released: 1994, Go! Discs
Key Tracks: "Sour Times," "Strangers," "It Could Be Sweet"
Catalog Choice: Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man: Out of Season
Next Stop: Beth Orton: Central Reservation
After That: Solex: Low Kick and Hard Bop
Book Page: 606