Friday, April 11, 2008


When I lived in Sheffield, there was a record shop which had a wonderful stock of second-hand classical CDs (frequently topped up by a couple of people living in the area who reviewed for music magazines and sold off heaps of review copies). I spent a lot of time and too much money there.

It was in that shop I first heard Portishead's Dummy being played. I was bowled over, asked who it was, and have been hooked ever since.

I say this with some awkward self-consciousness, as I'm quite the wrong generation. And you can't listen to Portsihead with the amused if admiring detachment that comes with the years -- as I do, for example to The White Stripes (on the iPod down the gym), entertained by the sheer cheek of it all as the kids have fun. Portishead don't exactly do fun. Dummy is dark and tangled, Portishead more so. You either have to dismiss their music as pretentious self-indulgence, or take it seriously. Sometimes I don't listen to them for months, and I begin to wonder. But then, in the right mood, I hear Beth Gibbons singing Wandering Star or Sour Times and I'm instantly captured again.

And now, ten years on from Portishead, their Third is coming out at the end of the month. But I confess I downloaded the torrent of a pre-release version (I hereby promise to buy the CD!). I am not sure what I was expecting. But not this. Darker still. Music it seems for the end of our times. Not a comfortable listen. And nothing with the instant appeal of a Glory Box or Roads or Over.* But it gets under the skin.

Here's their video of Machine Gun. Beth Gibbons' voice never more beautiful. The background never more harsh. And there is no consolation at the end ... her voice does not return.

*Nothing here, then, that could be co-opted for consumer adverts? But walking through the Grafton Centre mall the other day, the piped music was Dylan's Desolation Row. And if that can be domesticated and defanged ...


Chris Menzel said...

There's a fine article on Portishead in today's New York Times.

s/Portis/Radio/ still yields the name of my own favorite band of Brits, however... :-)

Peter Smith said...

Thanks Chris. Indeed better than the average article, and a very characteristic picture of Beth Gibbons too!