How Portishead’s ‘Portishead’ is the definition of a forgotten middle child

A raft of significant albums all came out in 1997 – Sam Walton is revisiting each one on their 20th anniversary

For a band who’ve released barely 150 minutes of music in over 23 years, it’s fairly impressive quite how much of that has made an impact on the surrounding musical environment. From that angle, then, Portishead are nothing if not efficient: their debut album captured the smoky, heavy-eyelidded essence of what was starting to be called trip-hop and packaged it so handsomely that it remains today the only album within that style to be completely accepted into the mainstream pop canon; their most recent, meanwhile, was one of the most combative reanimations of all time, proof that long-hibernating, supposedly typecast bands can still surprise and confront, seduce and provoke.

The album between those twin peaks, though, released twenty years ago today, often seems like the forgotten middle child. That’s understandable, but unfair: while the burden of influence – and indeed commemoration – doesn’t hang on ‘Portishead’’s shoulders with quite the same weight as it does on its siblings, it remains no less compelling today. Neither the band’s most accessible album nor their most musically challenging, instead ‘Portishead’ splits the difference between those qualities, revelling in its own queasily approachable form of discomfort: it takes the template of what is in retrospect a reasonably groovy debut and ramps up the gothic froideur, leaving something more insidious, more lascivious and more three-dimensional than its predecessor. Equally, listening in 2017, the adversarial air of ‘Third’ is clearly audible in ‘Portishead’’s wriggling nastiness, leaving a salty sense of anticipation when it ends.

That’s not to say however that ‘Portishead’ is a compromise record in the slightest, or one that only achieves definition when considered alongside the rest of its family tree. Indeed, it has as strong a personality as any 1997 album one could name, characterised by Beth Gibbon’s swings from plotting snarl to wronged howl and back to plaintive regret, Geoff Barrow’s clipped, crackling drum programming and, in particular, Adrian Utley’s deceptively aggressive and frequently brittle guitar sound: the distorted Morricone twangs on ‘All Mine’ are the most vicious Portishead has ever sounded, and even the relatively pared-back solos on ‘Mourning Air’ and ‘Elysium’ are so frosty and gnarled that any surrounding instrumental warmth is blown away as if on an Arctic tundra.

Indeed that icy, trebly grit is ‘Portishead’’s true calling card: if ‘Dummy’’s inspiration was the luxury loneliness of film noir soundtracks, its follow-up thrives off trembling strings and the strangling dread of Bernard Herrmann’s horror movie scores that pair tension not so much with release but just with eerie stillness. Accordingly, ‘Half Day Closing’, all crepuscular spy movie theme, is followed by the hushed ‘Over’, the album’s masterpiece of minimalism, never allowing the listener to truly relax. Similarly, the hard cut at the end of ‘Elysium’ and its dangerously teetering static is immediately interrupted by ‘Western Eyes’’ ominous string swells. It’s a striking aesthetic: compared not just with the easy flow of ‘Dummy’ but also with many of its contemporaries, ‘Portishead’’s jarring atmosphere is stylish but also wilfully cantankerous, and has far more in common with the stubborn stygian murk of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s debut album than anything that 1997 audiences might’ve expected from a hitherto coffee table-friendly, Mercury Prize-winning band – a bold move even in the context of 1997’s ever-broadening pop tastes.

Indeed, perhaps timing is the largest contributory factor for ‘Portishead’ being broadly disregarded over the past 20 years. After all, in late 1997, trip-hop as purist as this was starting to feel slightly draining: in a post-‘Endtroducing…’ landscape, music that majored on atmospherics, texture and sampling was starting to add new elements to the brew to maintain attention, whether that be in the form of Cornelius’ psychedelic cut-ups or Beck’s freewheeling postmodernism on ‘Odelay’. ‘Portishead’’s resolute gloom, by contrast, was substantial but stiff, requiring a sterner constitution to fully digest it: it is monolithic and unforgiving – qualities that today lend it welcome gravitas – but, alongside other recent records with trip-hop roots such as ‘Homogenic‘, also rather cold. To many fans of its by-now adored predecessor, its steely stance and more wiry build represented hard work with little reward.

Twenty years on, however, that sense of refusenik obstinance, combined with subtle, creepily insistent personality mutations and both critical and popular neglect for most of its life leaves the album as Portishead’s most intriguing record. Strange, macabre and slyly adventurous, dark, spacious and more nightmare than dream, Portishead’s second album might be their most unremembered, but in 2017 it looks like the meanest entry in one of pop’s leanest catalogues.

Also out this week in 1997:
The Verve – Urban Hymns (Hut), chart peak #1
Elton John – The Big Picture (Rocket), chart peak #3
Rolling Stones – Bridges To Babylon (Virgin), chart peak #6
Bob Dylan – Time Out Of Mind (Columbia), chart peak #10
Robbie Williams – Life Thru A Lens (Chrysalis), chart peak #1
Fluke – Risotto (Virgin), chart peak #45
EPMD – Back In Business (Def Jam), chart peak #100

To read all the other entries in Sam’s Twenty Years Ago Today blog, click here.