For the first episode of A Scene In Retrospect of 2020, we have dug out a tried and true masterpiece of the early 90s: Dummy by the inimitable (though not for lack of trying) Portishead. Forget the fireworks – this is how you start off the new year with a bang! A classy, understated bang, admittedly, but a big one nonetheless. In the following, EIN members Inter, David, Billie, and Faisal will run you through their thoughts on this album and what makes it such an iconic milestone.
While I didn’t confer with my co-writers while writing this piece for today’s ASIR, I don’t need to be prescient to guess that at least one of them will touch on what an influential powerhouse Dummy was. The breadth of its impact and influence, not just in my life, but on its genre (and music overall) is remarkable.
If you were to listen to Dummy for the first time today, you’d be forgiven thinking that its shuffling hip hop beats, ominous guitars, alien synths, and ghostly beautiful vocals set to a backdrop of lo-fi, grainy production were not particularly novel. The truth is, the sound on this record was so fully realized that the swarm that came after didn’t do much tweaking. When you hear that Bristol sound in your music today, it’s because of Dummy.
Along with Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, no other album has pervaded my consciousness and steered my tastes so strongly. There’s a sheen to the album that I can’t quite describe; a quality lurking in its intersection of gothic theatricality, organic jazzy sensibilities, and gritty urban production that I look for in almost all my music today, regardless of genre.
Its impact on my personal tastes extended beyond just music, too. Something about the neon blue of the cover art and the sounds on the record melded to create an atmosphere that captured my imagination. When I listen to Dummy, I think of a vampire’s den hidden in the basement of a cocktail lounge in a rainy metropolis. I think of the novel The Queen of the Damned and other dark urban thrillers. I think of contemporary musicians I enjoy from time to time for their brooding artistry, such as Sevdaliza, King 810, Lana Del Rey (and countless others) and marvel at its impact.
I am usually really laid-back when it comes to people liking/disliking certain music. Everybody is different and has different tastes, so it’s a given that some music you love won’t be as important to other people. Dummy is one of the very few albums I hold close enough to hold the opinion that if you consider yourself a music fan and don’t like this album, you’re just wrong. Portishead did something incredibly special with Dummy, and the resonant high I felt upon first hearing it years ago is one I have chased continually since then.
There are plenty of other great trip-hop artists and albums you could listen to, and then there is Dummy. I honestly haven’t delved deeply into the genre, because why would I when I could just listen to Portishead again? It may sound silly, but it’s actually how I am when it comes to this album. There are really no flaws to point out. It is something of a quintessential album for the music connoisseur in my humble opinion.
Dummy is an album I sometimes forget came out in 1994, in a time where a lot of music was just…not great. The backbone of shifting hip-hop beats with a ton of electronic instrumentation and jazz nods worked so well and holds up to this day in an almost completely unparalleled sense. Top it off with the enchantingly smooth vocals of Beth Gibbons, and you’re left with one of the most endearing pieces of music that can ever grace your ears. Portishead is spectacular through and through – I don’t know if there’s ever been a stronger debut from an emerging act. Dummy still sits near the top of the pile of my favorite albums of all time, and I’m incredibly glad I had a brief moment to gush about it!
Dummy is not only a genre-starting masterpiece, led by Beth Gibbons’ astonishing vocal performance and the revolutionary instrumentation and arrangements by Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley; Dummy is way more than that. It’s warmth and comfort, but also urban loneliness. Wandering through Bristol nights, a tiny bit of rain, watery, blurred lights. Portishead‘s debut is a must-listen for everyone who is even slightly interested in music.
Although it’s not their best effort (this would be their 1998’s live album Roseland NYC), Dummy paved the way for the band and also for trip hop. Three years after Massive Attack‘s debut album Blue Lines, Dummy added a new layer to the genre and carved their own soulful spot, filled with acid jazz, classical, electronic, and psychedelic elements. Not only a unique sound, but also a collection of absolutely fantastic songs.
In case of such albums, it’s hard to add anything which hasn’t been said before, but trust me, Portishead are an essential band for every music fan. Check. Them. Out.
Oh look, another popular artist I’m woefully unfamiliar with. Better late than never, right? I have been interested in the trip hop sound before, but never made it around to diving into Portishead, one of the artists who put it on the map. Today, we fix that as I check out Dummy with the rest of my pals here.
This is something that I feel could only be made in the period in which it was made. The 90s were a time when electronic music was really opening up possibilities and artists were experimenting, pushing things further in all directions. Portishead seemed to do so in order to trap the lighter side of the sound to develop their brand of trip hop.
There’s a wispy, eerie quality to it all. Tempos never really exceed a sullen trot and vocalist Beth Gibbons stays reserved in her delivery which still exhibiting some range in places. The atmosphere has a spacious, almost lonely feel throughout.
Although there are some samples here, a lot of what you hear on Dummy is actual instrumentation. From more prominent fixtures like drums and guitars to occasionally used tools of a Hammond organ and Rhodes piano, they all function in Portishead’s slow carnival of perpetual sadness. We even get some exotics here, like a theremin on “Mysterons” and a full-on string arrangement for “Roads”.
Though I would have only been five years old when this originally released in 1994, I can retroactively see Dummy being a revolution of sorts, playing to the likings of those with a darker disposition left out in the cold by the fast pace and industrialization of other popular electronic-based music, only to be pushed up against the grungier direction rock was heading in. This is a special album, one with a misfit attitude that ended up coming at the right time.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Dummy? Are you a fan of Portishead and trip hop in general? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!