And so bare is my heart I can’t hide: Portishead’s sophomore album twenty years on
There’s no denying 1997 was one of those golden years for music: from Daft Punk’s debut Homework to Radiohead’s OK Computer; from The Verve’s Urban Hymns to Bjork’s Homogenic, there really was something for everybody. Add a surprising sincereness (at least when compared to the customary cynicism of the late ’90s) inherent to a great part of these releases and you even have people falling in love with a genre they had never paid much attention before — one of the main feats any artist ought to be proud of. And here we are, twenty years later, looking at a startling panorama we’re only giving proper credit to now because, just like most formative moments in history, we are eternally doomed to never fully recognise greatness unless we’ve been allowed enough breathing room to properly let it sink in.
I got into Portishead quite late (around 1999/2000 to be more exact), but once it happened I sure did engage on a binge-like obsession that lasted for months on end. And after all these years, Portishead still resembles a lifelong drug addiction to me: you may go on withdrawal for a couple of months, even years, you may even think you’re cured, but deep down you know that as soon as you listen to a mere thirty seconds of a tune of theirs you’ll be looking at a fortnight — to say the least — of utter and complete descent into a blinding compulsion nourished by the maddening, despair-coloured beauty that is the marriage of Beth Gibbons’ voice with Utley’s and Barrow’s ambient mastery. And though I unfortunately never saw them live (when they finally made a comeback it was mostly motivated by the release of Third, an album I never managed to get into), I remember compulsively crying — hell, sobbing — to my VHS copy of the Roseland NYC show.
Since their eponymous sophomore album was actually my gateway drug into their universe, one can say I dove into Portishead in reverse order. I was fifteen going on sixteen when an older friend of mine offered me a copy of the album after I had inquired him about this band I kept hearing about. I put it on my CD player — those were the days! -and as the titillating yet menacing first notes filled my teenage room along with that pounding heartbeat that eventually floods into a releasing waterfall of scratched-raw noise, I knew I was in trouble: “fuck” I mumbled, knowing my life would never be the same again.
I listened to it on repeat for weeks, months even, until I knew every single note and word by heart, my favourite tracks constantly changing according to the way I projected my own teenage self into it. Strangely enough, I never found it as depressing as most people did — it was way too intense and familiar for that. ‘All Mine’, ‘Only You’, ‘Half Day Closing’, ‘Undenied’, ‘Cowboys’ — they all took turns as what was to me the quintessential Portishead song; I even had a cover of ‘Over’ with my band at the time, though since we only played it live there are sadly no recordings of it (at least that I’m aware of). Gibbons also quickly became one of my main vocal references, mainly due to her unbelievable ability to sound menacing and fragile at the same time — sometimes in the same song — a perfect example of this being ‘Cowboys’ and its visceral shift from the distortion-drenched verse to the helplessness of “oh, if you take these things from me”, in which she sounds like a powerful witch who suddenly sees herself tied to the pole in centre-village, her burning imminent.
I eventually found my way into Dummy, which I also adore, but the bond was never as irrevocably strong as the one I have with Portishead. And then there was the occasional person who kept insisting “oh, you like Portishead? If you’re into them, you should also listen to”, with the predictable roll of suggestions ranging from Lamb to Massive Attack duly following — but, respectfully, it’s not about the genre. There’s something mystic, alien-like even, about the carnal way Portishead deliver sense and melody, making you feel like you’ve heard it all before even if you’re completely sure you never did. It’s a burning passion, an aching commitment, a complete and fatal surrender transpiring from the unsettling comfort of hearing perfection, of everything falling in its exact place.
Every single track from Portishead is so amazingly complete and absolute one finds it difficult to accept that a writing, recording, producing, and mixing process had to have taken place: they just seem to have fallen from heaven (or uprisen from a Dantesque hell) as a whole, piercing your heart and ripping it open like a damnation spell. Agreed, the Roseland concert does contribute to a somehow different perception of some of the tracks — you realise a (re)construction process had to happen so that this flawless communion between the band and the orchestra could come to life — but the songs themselves never lose their innate ability to put you into a deep trance, turning the whole experience into a life-transforming ritual.
It had been some time — perhaps too long — since I last had my Portishead binge, but in order to properly write this piece I obviously had to put both Dummy and Portishead on repeat. Say a prayer; I’m pretty sure I’m in for a three-month loop at the very least.
Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.