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Friday, May 19, 2017

Portishead -- Portishead


Fin de siècle is a French expression for "end of the century." It is generally used in conjunction with anxiety and dread, and generally used to reference a certain feeling at the end of the 19th century. However, I think that feeling is also apt for the end of the 20th century, and I feel like few if any albums dredge up that kind of unique dread like Portishead's 1997 self-titled album.
The end of the 20th century brought about its own specialized, self-titled crisis, Y2K, which was possibly going to destroy the world. If it appears, for those too young to remember, or for those who were around, but less prone to panic, that I am being histrionic, check out this Time magazine cover from the period:

This was a very real fear, and this is on top of events like the Heaven's Gate cult mass-suicide in 1997, 39 of its members ending their lives in an attempt to somehow metaphysically board a spaceship they thought was following the Hale-Bopp was weird times. Also, the President got impeached. I love the 90's.
Portishead's self-titled album rides an insurmountably massive wave of this dread from start to finish, pumping up the beats and bass of its first album with self-made samples (often of horns), record scratching, female vocals, spy guitar, and an industrial-sized closet's worth of all manner of creepy soundscapes. Also, it's fun, and unspeakably cool...but I will speak about it anyway!
Portishead kicks off with "Cowboys," a terrifying, spaghetti western/spy/big-beat mashup featuring Beth Gibbons wailing "But don't despair, this day, will be their damnedest day/if you take these things from me." Gibbons performances have yielded critical descriptions of a Bond girl jaded after years of her old paramour not returning. Maybe that's how I felt about her lyrics and vocals when I was in high school. Looking at them now, this self-titled album is largely political in lyrical content, and biting and pointed at that. They paint the picture of a decaying, corrupt society. That's not to say romance doesn't make its presence felt: track two, "All Mine," with its giant beat and thudding bassline over ancient-sounding horn samples, a sinister 60's-esque spy guitar line, and Gibbons' haunting vocals, conjures feelings of obsession bordering on mania. It is just as scary as its predecessor, despite the change in topic, and for it the band commissioned a fitting, extremely creepy, trippy, black-and-white video, featuring an actress in Gibbons' place. They even used imagery from this video for the album cover.

Lest Portishead ever be put in a box, "Undenied" then takes things in an entirely different direction, a quiet, lonely, meditative track which leads into the pitch black "Half Day Closing." This middle section of Portishead is easily the darkest of Portishead's discography. "Half Day Closing" starts with a slow, rumbly bassline, and builds up into a cacophonous, banshee wail of a song about society's degradation. This is followed by the darkest song of Portishead's career, and maybe the bleakest song I have ever heard, "Over," whose sound is best illustrated by its video: Beth Gibbons in pitch darkness, desperately running from pinprick spotlight to pinprick spotlight.

I need to reiterate something here, though: through all this bleakness, and all this darkness, Portishead's music sounds so cool and is so cinematically immersive, unless the listener is already in a dark place, the overall vibe of the album is more fun and relaxing than "turn this off and get all sharp objects away from me." It's just, to paraphrase the late Chris Farley "...awesome!" But back to the songs...
"Humming," with its dark strings and theremin intro, almost seems like an album reboot. It gives me the feeling of floating through the dark void of deep space, and as the beat and bass kick in, this is an ever-so inviting trip. It gave another listener a completely different feeling, so here is a fan-made video that I find just as apt a visual descriptor.

Thankfully, Portishead isn't all darkness, as this section ends, and one absolutely dripping with coolness begins. This section is kicked off by "Mourning Air," with it's fuzzy trumpet samples and awesome beat, and sublime guitar bridge, is continued by "Seven Months," with one of the feistier combined performances of Beth Gibbons, and guitarist, Adrian Utley, and comes to a climax with track nine, my favorite Portishead song, "Only You."

In high school, I worked at Wal-Mart, and most-likely against child labor laws, often had to work very late. One very late night drive home, I realized I was almost completely out of gas. I am from a very rural part of South Louisiana, and there was (and is no longer) only one gas station within five miles of my house. It was closed by that hour, but the owner, who I was friendly with, lived next door to it, and turned on the pumps for me. The gas pumps weren't covered by an overhang, and sat in a barely paved lot, lit by a solitary lamp-post, which she also turned on with the pumps. The light took a few minutes to come on all the way, first perfect time with "Only You," which I was blaring in my car while I pumped. The song just happened to come on the local college radio station at that exact moment, and that five minutes remains perhaps the most serendipitously cool of my life. The light even stopped flickering just as the song ended, coming on brightly. I miss the 90's, or perhaps just my 90's brain chemistry, which was far more attuned to such experiences. You are only young once.
Portishead ends with the one/two punch of "Elysium" and "Western Eyes." "Elysium," with its nasty guitar and record scratches, and a snarling vocal from Gibbons, perfectly nails that "this whole thing is about to come to a close" feel most great albums penultimate tracks invoke. Then it does close, with "Western Eyes," which might as well close out the 20th century itself. Quietly downbeat (but that beat is huge!), and opening with foreboding strings and piano, "Western Eyes" features one of Gibbons' most subtle performances, as she sums up the album's ideas as a critique of 20th century western civilization:

Forgotten throes of another's life
The heart of love is their only light
Faithless greeds, consolidating
Holding down sweet charity
With western eyes and serpents' breath
We lay our own conscience to rest

But I'm aching at the view
Yes, I'm breaking at the seams, just like you

They have values of a certain taste
The innocent they can hardly wait
To crucify, invalidating
Turning to dishonesty
With western eyes and serpents' breath
They lay their own conscience to rest
But then they lie and then they dare to be
Hidden heroes, candidly

So I'm aching at the view
Yes, I'm breaking at the seams, just like you

Just as she finishes singing, an ancient sounding lounge band sample begins(actually created by the band itself, and falsely listed as coming from a made-up 1957 Starfish Records (also fake!) release, The Sean Atkins Experience), a washed-out, scratchy vinyl male-vocal intoning "I feel so cold on hookers and gin/this mess we're in." This is followed by a jazz piano line, conjuring a feeling that the second the last note is hit, the lights go off, and the apocalypse begins. It's a stunning moment on a stunning album--one of my favorites.

1997 Go!/London
1. Cowboys 4:38
2. All Mine 3:59
3. Undenied 4:18
4. Half Day Closing 3:49
5. Over 4:00
6. Humming 6:02
7. Mourning Air 4:11
8. Seven Months 4:15
9. Only You 4:59
10. Elysium 5:54
11. Western Eyes 3:57


Azure Ides-Grey said...

In one of my sociology classes, we watched a CNN video about Heaven's Gate ... creepy stuff, but so interesting with the matching uniforms/Nike shoes, the alien logo, etc. Also, new background looks good! Who's playing guitar?

Nicholas said...

Yes, it was so bizarre! I was in Washington D.C. on a high school trip when the Heaven's Gate mass suicide happened. I took a bunch of pictures of the comet over some of the monuments at night with a camera that could generally handle night pics--it was so vivid, and huge, and the sky was clear. Strangely enough, when I later went to get them developed, none of them came out.
Thanks! It's Neil Samoy from Stavesacre--I took it at Main Stage at Cornerstone 2002, when Neil came out on the catwalk to play the solo from "Sad Parade."