Anyone who listened to Massive Attack’s monumental debut Blue Lines knows how diverse trip-hop can be when in the right hands. For acts like Massive Attack and Tricky, every turntable scratch and music sample that epitomizes the genre becomes necessary and timeless. Less talented trip-hop groups find a hard time existing in a climate where their songs have aged so poorly.
But, Portishead’s Dummy does something incredible, something I think only the absolute highs of their trip-hop peers ever come close to matching. Dummy isn’t only timeless, it’s also transcendent of a genre so enveloped in tropes and gimmicks. Even though there’s a requisite amount of drum-beat breakdowns to fill any trip-hop fan’s quota, there’s a heartbroken soul lurking at the core of every song.
And because of this, and the unparalleled voice of Beth Gibbons, with all its sweet, snarly and sardonic tones, Dummy is able to revolve around darkness and depression in a way few others can.
And that’s exactly what’s at the epicenter of the album: darkness. Every song either presents a new definition of or reacts to the existence of darkness, which makes it perfect to listen to during the funereal months of fall.
“Sour Times” is a cynical reflection on emotional love in sordid pasts and futures. “It Could Be Sweet” is a sexual ballad stained with cigarette smoke from a gloomy lounge bar. “Wandering Star” centers on the finality of depression and the struggle in not succumbing to the disease..”It’s a Fire” finally offers hope on an album surrounded by darkness; Gibbons sings: “so let it be known for what we believe in/ I can see no reason for it to fail.” The effects on the keyboards in the song sound angelic. It’s a moment’s repose, a seraphic interlude to all the somber musings found on the rest of the album.
The range Portishead shows in including comparatively lighter songs like “It’s a Fire” and “Strangers” is significant on its own, but that these tracks still orbit around the bleakness emanating from the other tracks makes Dummy a monumentally cohesive project.
If you need more of an excuse to listen to the album, consider the closing track. “Glory Box” features a guitar riff that cuts at your heart, a turntable breakdown that rivals any other in the genre and what just might be Gibbons’ best vocal performance on Dummy. It’s a perfect sendoff to a perfect trip-hop album.
It’s a shame that since Dummy, the band has only put out two more LPs, each one sublime and different. The band is proof -personified of the diversity of trip-hop, even with such a paltry amount of items in their discography. Nevertheless, I’m still content sipping my hot cider, cozying up under a blanket, closing my eyes, and letting Dummy teach me about the somber variety of fall.