If Massive Attack’s Blue Lines was the father, and Tricky’s Maxinquaye the son, then Portishead’s Dummy was certainly the spirit of the early nineties’ trip hop holy trinity. Drawing on the sound of dark cabaret and film noir soundtracks, Portishead forged their own identity while still retaining those typical downtempo tropes that characterised their contemporaries, indebted to trip hop, yet seemingly lacking all the stylistic influences that birthed the Bristol sound. Dummy finds itself unclear, mysterious, and enigmatic, weaving brooding basslines with dirty percussion, faux samples from invented records with Beth Gibbons’ bittersweet serenades – this album is deeply moving, deeply unnerving, and deeply entrenched in a sense of melancholia.
If Dummy ever meanders, it’s the calm before the storm. Especially on jazzier cuts like Sour Times or the closer Glory Box, Portishead embody a sound more akin to film noir atmospherics and dimly lit jazz clubs than the dub appropriations of their Bristol forefathers. Despite its sweet and sort of pseudo-bluesy moments, Dummy succeeds equally as well in its creation of discordant ambience and noisy tectonics beneath the surface – grungy drums linger restlessly under layers of electric pianos, organs, and synthetic strings, while the band warp and twist their palette of sample material, invented or otherwise, into rich backdrops that favour Beth Gibbons’ soulful croons.
This is background music that seizes the forefront – it’s easy listening turned uneasy, the sounds of lounge and exotica stretched to their absolute limits. But somehow, the final result is anything but misshapen. Dummy grants itself a timeless identity, making the past sound postmodern, and the postmodern sound like the past. It may be restrained and minimalist, but Portishead’s instrumentation is rich and textured. This album centres around these musical anachronisms, playing off of these temporal anomalies – there’s album opener Mysterons, the spacey sci-fi of vintage theremins interlocking with trippy turntablism and hip hop aesthetics. Or It Could Be Sweet, where lowkey lounge-esque e-pianos glide over the tick of a frantic drum machine.
But it’s Beth Gibbons’ stellar vocal performance that ties all of Dummy’s various elements together. Halfway between Nina Simone’s soulful cries and Björk’s warped melodies, her voice captures every instrumental effortlessly, be it the highs or the lows, sweetness or melancholia. Whether it be her gloomy incantations over Pedestal’s unsettled bass, her sombre tones woven within Roads’ despondent string sections, or her hopeless romanticism on Glory Box, Gibbons manages to adapt and take centre stage in every situation. Her lyrics are simple, but poignant, stirring discontent and fear as much as they do romance. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s vocals here but hers.
But Dummy’s subtleties are just as important – it’s those subtleties that fill in the dead space, driving tracks forward rather than letting them wander aimlessly. Distorted and unrecognizable samples break the action on Strangers and Biscuit, while record scratches infiltrate moments on Wandering Star and Mysterons. Drum changeups are frequent, often going as far to switch out entire breaks for another. Occasionally, even electric guitars and other electroacoustics enter the mix, further layering atop Portishead’s already lush atmospherics. But at no point is Dummy excessive or over-excited – every track here is precise, carefully sculpted to the point of perfection.
Dummy is not only a great album, but a groundbreaking album. Although they slotted themselves nicely into the niche started by Massive Attack, it was Portishead who legitimized trip hop as the sound of the future. Dummy both indulges and rejects the cliches of nineties electronica, staying true to those desolate, downtempo attitudes while cultivating the atmosphere of jazz clubs and lounge bars. Dummy unites all of trip hop’s extended family – jazz, hip hop, and electronica coalesce under Portishead’s direction.