Two decades ago this week saw the release of Portishead‘s debut album Dummy. Always slightly enigmatic and mysterious, the group appeared largely out of nowhere, and subsequently disappeared into relative obscurity afterwards, only surfacing about once a decade with a new album, which although excellent and significant chart hits, seem to get almost entirely forgotten by the world at large.
Dummy wouldn’t really conquer the charts until the following year, and yet it must be one of the strongest debut albums I’ve ever come across. The first track is the Theremin-styled Mysterons, full of cold and wintry misery. Within the first minute, the haunting vocals and slightly dub-inspired backing draws you in and refuses to let you go.
The second track is the brilliant second single Glory Box (that’s the one about “nobody loves me / not like you do,” in case you’re having trouble working out why the name Portishead should be familiar to you). The vocal is even more haunting this time, and the instrumentation absolutely spot on. If you can avoid being drawn in by this stage, you have no heart.
There is, relatively speaking, some filler on here too – neither Strangers nor It Could Be Sweet really grab me in the same way as their predecessors. So it’s up to Wandering Star to recapture the mood. Driven by a slightly dirty bass sound and a bit of daft record scratching, it could very easily be awful, but somehow all the ingredients come together, and it ends up totally brilliant instead.
Then comes first single Numb, with its Hammond Organ backing and yet another quite exceptional vocal performance. I’d probably have dispensed with the record scratching by this stage, but the rest of the backing gives it a moody air of mystery.
Roads and Pedestal are less endearing, although they certainly do nothing to detract from the mood. The curiously named Biscuit may be a little unintelligible at times, but as a prelude to the final track it definitely has its place, and it’s full of all the moody vocals and noises that graced previous tracks.
Picking a favourite between Sour Times and Glory Box would be tricky, but it’s definitely Glory Box which is the more expressive of the two. There isn’t a lot to it – a high string sound, a huge bass, some slightly trippy drums, and yet another exceptional vocal. But somehow all the magic is there, particularly in the vocal performance. This must be one of the best closing tracks in the history of music, and although it didn’t quite manage the top ten, it was still a significant hit in its own right. At the end, it fades unusually over the first verse again, making it sound as though it might just carry on forever.
However you look at it, Dummy is an exceptional debut, and is also pretty much defining of its era too. Three years later the slightly anonymous follow-up Portishead would sell well (about half as well as the first album) and Third, which followed more than a decade later was also successful, but neither would be anywhere near as memorable as the exceptional Dummy.
You can find Dummy at all major retailers as a download or CD. Try here.