I could be committing musical sacrilege for a lot of people with this question, but aren’t Portishead a bit… dull? Now, in 2008, for some reason beyond my comprehension the band are revered and marketed as influential, provocative alchemists of cracked beats and haunting emotion whose commercially motivated reunion we should all buy into with fond reminiscing and unanimous praise.
Sorry, but in the midst of this flurry of Portishead resurrection-eering, I listened to Dummy, their 1994 ‘classic’, again, and I didn’t find any timeless chronicle of spliffy, transcendent wonder, but a tame, rather boring relic of its time – as relevant to the here and now as, say, Sneaker Pimps or Jamiroquai. Its jazzy, late-night ambience and slick production – all scratched vinyl sampling, Hammer Horror FX and breathily seductive vocals – made it a mid-’90s must-have for both the white student who didn’t ‘do’ urban music but could stomach this soft dilution, and lustful couples who wanted a get-it-on soundtrack without sacrificing their cool self-perception.
No matter its functional success, there are others who genuinely believe in Dummy as one of the seminal albums of the ’90s. Before all this talk of a reunion and new album (titled Third – more proof of their boundless imagination), a former flatmate of mine once confessed that Dummy was the most prized slice of vinyl in his record collection. Where does this hushed devotion stem from? I suspect it’s more to do with what the record symbolises – 4am, post-club, passing joints with the lights down – than what it sounds like. And, as with most reunions, you just know it’s going to to be fuelled by one massive great 30-something nostalgia trip to those pre-mortgage years of sex’n’drugs abandon.
The counter-argument would be that Portishead, along with the likes of Massive Attack and Tricky, were responsible for bringing that Bristolian trip-hop scene to the masses. So what? Where did it go from there? How did it evolve? Maybe I’m just an ignorant Northerner, but where are all the exciting trip-hop artists of today?
I normally wouldn’t get so worked up by the now commonplace and frankly tedious spectacle of musical reunions (at least not enough to churn out 500 words on it!) but the impulse for this posting came from the information gleaned from the worldwide web this week that Portishead are headlining Coachella, the ‘Glastonbury of America’, in the Saturday night slot no less.
But whoa there, that is not all: Portishead are taking to the stage after Kraftwerk!
If the Coachella programmers decided this order on status and status alone (which I sincerely hope they didn’t), then they’ve got one skewered vision of the last 30 years of popular music. Kraftwerk, a band who influenced half the sonic universe with their portentous vision of a computerised, dehumanised society, driven by pioneering minimalist electro (and whose visually stunning live shows are legendary), play warm-up to Portishead, a band who made an album that was lucky enough to be adopted as the come-down soundtrack for the ecstasy generation, but which is practically devoid of urgency or originality. A band who made one further album which no-one really gave a shit about, before fading into a decade-long period of ‘hiatus’ – that music biz euphemism for having no ideas and nothing good enough to record.
I don’t get it. Someone enlighten me.