Dour times

Portishead creates a sad poetic sound that separates dreams from reality

Portishead's is a music that's both modern and retro, as cold as death and as warm as a passionate embrace. A song like the hit single "Sour Times," which incorporates Schiffrin's music into its dirge-dance mix, works the first time or the hundredth because it's so damned unexpected. It manages to do what British rock writer Simon Reynolds once said of My Bloody Valentine--that is, it reconciles "the two great pleasures in rock today" that are seemingly at odds with each other: "the masculine pleasure of the oppressive, spine-crushing arse-quake, and the feminine bliss of dissolving, spine-melting oceanic wash."

"Some people, I think, are extremely lucky and very talented," Barrow says. "I think I've been lucky, and I don't think I'm extremely talented. I think all I've done is sat down a lot and actually thought why some people make it and some people don't. If you've heard something that's new and you think, 'Oh, I like the sound of that. I'll try that style of music,' I don't think it's really going to work. By the time you actually get it out, there's a million other bands like you...

"What I've tried to do is take the step forward in music rather than looking at what's going on. I don't believe we're doing anything new. I don't. I just think what we've done is mold our influences, which is all old music, to create something that sounds new. But if you break it down, it's not."

"Sour Times"--its video a hit in MTV's Buzz Bin and its single a constant request on pop-alternative radio--has little in common with the music currently topping the charts. It is not catchy or clichéd like Sheryl Crow or Hootie and the Blowfish; it is not loud or pissed-off like Green Day or Offspring; and it is not moldy or oldie like the Eagles and Van Halen. Rather, it is hypnotic and cathartic, both hallucinogenic and amphetamine. Dummy--which was released last August in England, in November in the States--is not too unlike Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, both sounding as though they were created in the groggy moments separating a dead sleep from a bleary-eyed awakening, when dreams are indistinguishable from reality.

If it's Barrow's music that provides the backbone to Portishead's appeal, singer-lyricist Beth Gibbons donates her very heart (or, judging from her tortured words, what's left of it) to the proceedings. Gibbons' voice weaves in and out of the album, at times buried deep in the mix, disconnected from the music; and sometimes, it's up front, piercing and soft, soulful and empty. And like Sinatra, she sings her words underneath the crushing blanket of profound sadness. "Please, could you stay a while to share my grief," she begs, "the blackness, the darkness forever."

Though Portishead's roots run deep through the basement of acid-house, theirs is not dance music; rather, it is the sound of the early morning--"when the morn meets the dew," as Gibbons sings, "and the tide is rising." When she complains that "nobody loves me," she tacks on the insistent "it's true." A former employee in a clock-making factory, she began her singing career fronting bad cover bands, mimicking the words of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick and Stevie Nicks for a few pounds a night. She joined Barrow only after he had auditioned several dozen other vocalists, never finding the right atmospheric voice to layer into his odd sonic concoction.

Gibbons and Barrow--along with engineer Dave McDonald and guitarist Adrian Utley, whom Barrow considers members of Portishead even though they are not signed to the label as members--do not write together. Rather, Barrow, Utley, and McDonald will lay down the backing tracks on a cassette, and then hand the tape to Barrow, who will hole up for several days creating the melody and penning the sad, angst-ridden words that define Portishead as much as the music.

"At that point, we can see where we go," Barrow explains, "and that's when Beth and I start working together--to take it further, to finish it off. But some of the times, it has amazed us because she comes from a totally different angle from what the music is. But it seems to fit--do you know what I mean?--which is really excellent."

In his 1990 book Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, Simon Reynolds pulled out the words of French author Helene Cixous to describe two other English bands, the Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane. Those groups, Reynolds insisted, adhered to Cixous' notion of écriture feminine--that is, poetry that recalls "the first voice of love...a song before the Law, before the breath was split by the symbolic, reappropriated into language under the authority that separates"; these bands create, as Reynolds wrote, "song that comes before language or grammar." Five years later, no band better fits that description than Portishead.

If that seems somewhat overstated, too grand a pronouncement to make about pop music, then so be it: no matter how popular it may be, Portishead's music transcends the boundaries of pop and creates an altogether more sinister, more fragile beast. It indeed resembles poetry--the poetry of sound, the intricate melodies created as a human voice drags across a string section, and, finally, the lilting rhythm of a hip-hop beat pulsing like a broken heart.

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