New Ordered: Ranking the tracks off Portishead’s ‘Dummy,’ on the album’s 20th anniversary
On August 22, 1994, Dummy lurked in the shadows of two cultural scenes clashing on record racks, bedroom walls, bar playlists, and magazine covers: grunge and alt-rock in America (Kurt Cobain had killed himself less than three weeks prior), and Cool Britannia in the United Kingdom (Oasis’ Definitely Maybe would come out a week later). In small pockets like the trio’s hometown of Bristol, England, and culturally-forward places elsewhere, trip-hop was an oddity sound. Albums from DJ Shadow, Massive Attack, and Tricky around the time set the tone for the genre, but their place was rooted inward; Dummy was for the raveheads and the MTV teenagers, and the vocal hook of breakout single “Sour Times” (“Nobody loves me/It’s true”) ended up as ’90s as Beck calling himself a loser.
Dummy would be dubbed as “trip-hop” by critics, but actually predated the term by two months, when British writer Andy Pemberton used it to describe DJ Shadow’s “In/Flux” single for Mixmag. As Britpop soared in their home country, Dummy captured the 1995 Mercury Music Prize for best British record of 1994, no small feat when sizing up the competition of Suede, Blur, Pulp, and Oasis.
But where Britpop was a colorful explosion of national pride, Dummy was a gray record of solitary confinement. Vocalist Beth Gibbons and sonic manipulators Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley created a stylish haunted house of film scores, noir flashbacks, and scratchy, jazz-based minimal compositions that forced you to hear every ounce of sound. The fragile vocals of Gibbons, and the band’s refusal to do interviews after the record’s release, added to the intrigue.
As Dummy turns 20 today, New Ordered takes a look back at the best — and reluctantly, “worst” — tracks off this landmark album, and attempts the futile task of ranking them.
A Smithsian example of heaviness through simplicity, “Roads” comes in right at Dummy’s 30-minute mark, and by now, sonic paralysis has set in. The point where a groundbreaking record becomes a classic, “Roads” remains the trio’s creative high point along the Portishead mountain range. The gentle opening tones of “Roads” flicker like a beacon at sea, 50 seconds of emotion before a beat finally kicks in and Gibbons offers “Ohh, can’t anybody see/We’ve got a war to fight.” A boulder of a ballad heightened by its strings: “How can it feel, this wrong/From this moment/How can it feel, this wrong.” Few singers have ever sounded so vulnerable and steady at the same time.[embedvideo id=”3XmuKtEh2so” website=”youtube”]
2. “Glory Box”
The closing track off Dummy would go on to chart without any radio play. A feisty Gibbons snarls the verses of gender-role frustration before opening up with sensuality; “Give me a reason to love you/Give me a reason to be a woman/I just wanna be a woman,” she sings, and suddenly, the rest of the record takes a different shape. Its sexual aura palpable, the beats grow harder on “Glory Box,” the desperation sharper, the excitement more demanding… until it fades out right at the point where you need it most. The end.[embedvideo id=”yF-GvT8Clnk” website=”youtube”]
3. “Sour Times”
Portishead’s biggest commercial success, and the song that first reached American audiences through MTV. The rolling bells, the spy-theme guitars, the atmospheric wind-chime all leads to Gibbons’ desperate vocals and a hook you’re singing right now. 1994 gave us two music videos that could have easily expanded into decade-defining feature films: the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and Portishead’s “Sour Times.”[embedvideo id=”g7gutsi1uT4″ website=”youtube”]
To get sense British music in 1994, scan the Track 1’s of some of the ’95 Mercury Music Prize nominees: Oasis’ Definitely Maybe opens with the bombastic “Rock And Roll Star,” Pulp’s His N’ Hers leads with “Joyriders,” and Blur’s Parklife kicks off with “Girls & Boys.”
Dummy’s opening track is “Mysterons,” a spooky, sci-fi-like track with record scratches and hip-hop beats. It set a very dark tone for the record ahead.
Every head trip needs that fleeting moment of insanity, and in Dummy it comes in pill form via “Strangers.” A fright train of sound barrels along before dropping out so Gibbons can ask into the darkness: “Can anybody see the light/Where the morn meets the dew/And the tide rises?” This is the moment before the bank robbery scene in Portishead’s grand crime drama.[embedvideo id=”B4TxEsRxltg” website=”youtube”]
6. “It’s A Fire”
Forget the beat and the glowing sounds simmering way down below, this is Gibbons’ song all her own, and one she could sing with no backing music to the same grand effect. “Cause this life is a farce/I can’t breathe through this mask/Like a fool/So breathe on/Sister breathe on.”[embedvideo id=”wlW1XtdxGFE” website=”youtube”]
7. “Wandering Star”
A crowd favorite, though perhaps slightly overrated, “Wandering Star” breathes life into Gibbons’ misery and loneliness; it’s hip-hop beat and scratching is found elsewhere and to greater effect, but compared with Gibbons’ isolated posturing, it makes a great closing track on that mix tape to your ex. The faint organs at the end leave you wanting more.[embedvideo id=”gEQNAZGoZrw” website=”youtube”]
We’re getting to the point where most of these tracks can end up a multi-way tie for sixth place or something; it’s odd to start declaring anything the “worst” on a record that’s essentially perfect, but “Pedestal” lacks the gravitational pull of other tracks, and just floats along with the same tricks and loops we hear elsewhere. It’s saved by the jazz solo around the 2:10 mark.[embedvideo id=”YEim1TS8H2w” website=”youtube”]
9. “It Could Be Sweet”
Though it was an A-side track on Dummy, there was something missing from “It Could Be Sweet” that fell flatter than “Strangers” and “Sour Times,” and if anything would sound dated on this record, this is it. It wouldn’t sound out-of-place on the Hackers soundtrack.[embedvideo id=”57C_eWa2bgo” website=”youtube”]
A single in the UK, “Numb” is a sinister caper score where the efforts of Barrow and Utley outshine Gibbons’ vocals. We’re probably being too hard on this track, but it always left us cold. Or “Numb.”[embedvideo id=”jKd30B1QE9w” website=”youtube”]
For this series, we have to list a “worst” track, but for Dummy it’s particularly hard (much more difficult than, say, the Killers’ Hot Fuss). But “Biscuit” sounds like a combination of leftover samples, sounds, and scratches, and is the only instance of album filler on Dummy. On its own it encapsulates Portishead’s identity, and wouldn’t turn off a first time listener. But against the strengths of the songs around it, it falls just slightly behind.[embedvideo id=”uiT0fBePR0Q” website=”youtube”]