This Portishead article was written by Macon Oxley, a GIGsoup contributor
As debuts go, Portishead‘s album ‘Dummy’ didn’t fair too badly at all. Achieving critical acclaim by winning the Mercury Music Prize in 1995 and being one of the key albums responsible for the popularisation of the trip hop genre. ‘Dummy’ is often cited as one of the most important albums of the ’90s.
A sublime meld of the weird and wonderful, ‘Dummy’ evokes an image of alien landscapes through its ambient, jazz-cum-hip hop stylings. Nowhere is this more present than on opener ‘Mysterons’: an aural exploration of eerie synths and glitchy beats creating a soundtrack befitting the elusive Captain Scarlet villains from whom the track takes its title.
With no real sense of urgency to the album, Portishead amble seemingly unwittingly through winding avenues of smooth though disjunct brilliance. Drawing on elements of dub and hip hop, the album’s droning lethargy is complimented by incidental electronic blips, turntable dalliances and carefully selected samples (such as the sampling of Weather Report‘s ‘Elegant People’ on ‘Strangers’).
Perhaps the best-known track, ‘Glory Box’ captures the essence of the album and its success. The sound is not too unfamiliar as to alienate the listener, and yet its unconventional, pioneering approach and attention to detail demonstrate a sonic savvy which is no doubt what set it apart from its 1995 contenders for the Mercury Prize. And there were certainly some names to contend with. Not least of all was the might that was ‘Definitely Maybe’. Yes, even Oasis with their massively popular debut weren’t enough to tempt the heads behind Mercury. In fact, the band were nominated again the following year with ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ but never did go on to clinch the prize.
Other notable contenders included Tricky‘s ‘Maxinquaye’ (featuring the incredible reworking of Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’), Elastica with their eponymous debut and Supergrass with ‘I Should Coco’.
But it is Portishead, with what is still considered to this day as their defining work, who took the big prize. An innovative approach, marrying together different genre conventions, obscure soundscapes and musical motifs straight out of the sci-fi film score playbook mean ‘Dummy’ will always be considered as one of the best debuts of the ’90s.