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.