Carlos Dengler on Portishead’s ‘Dummy’
My parents fought day and night in the early ‘90s, almost getting divorced. Because our apartment was tiny, I watched it all unfold at close proximity. We’d moved to a two-bedroom recently, and I hadn’t been given my own bedroom, the lone remaining one going to my brother instead. So the old TV, beige couch and coffee table of the living area became my “room,” giving me a front row seat to the feud.
In between their fights, I watched a lot of MTV and CNN. I took in most of the big events of the era through that living room television: the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., the rise of Seinfeld, the death of Cobain, Clintonian victory, Waco, the L.A. riots — it all beamed into my lap through an old-fashioned, 32” CRT.
The exposure in the living room meant that I also had to entertain guests — a strange capacity for a 19-year-old. One day, my friend came over with a CD in his hand. “Turn on your stereo, man,” he told me. I took heed of his gravity and put the disc in the tray.
We’d been talking a lot about seminal trip-hoppers Portishead, marveling at the haunting music video for “Sour Times.” Now, he had come over with the full album, their debut called Dummy — celebrating its silver anniversary this year — and we were to listen to the whole extravaganza.
During this time, my friend and I would often play at broad musicology. We’d lapse into historical analysis of classical music, sometimes curating our intake (“Tonight it’s just chamber music”), but then pivot to be-bop anthologies of Mingus and Miles and to albums by OutKast and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The sessions gave me needed emotional respite during a difficult time.
We anticipated Dummy was going to be a moody album, although we had no idea just how dark it would sound: it played like an industrialized Goya painting. Each song seemed to trudge through molasses, one harsh scene of bilious factory life and malaise after another. The album was positively exotic from our vantage point: the din of industrial England’s back alleys, a mid-tempo swamp of Bristolian dystopia doused in rain and grey gouache, seemed like a strange world from the suburbs of New Jersey, although no less compelling.
The mid ‘90s were an open season for this kind of exploration, a time when bands were relieved of strictures, when it seemed that every artist worth their salt was deliberately and bravely throwing out the old playbook, and when record execs, their coffers flush from a pre-Mp3 world, were more than happy to write the checks to finance it all. Dummy was only the latest installment in the then burgeoning trip-hop genre, one of the many new musics seeing light of day during this fertile time.
My friend and I had heavy rock tendencies (Metallica’s The Black Album, Soundgarden, grunge, et al). We were particularly obsessed with mid-tempo break beats, the kind that bands like Biohazard and Leeway, gritty New York acts who’d been steeped in hip-hop, had been using to slow hardcore punk way down. The “chugga chugga” of the breakdowns were a departure from hardcore’s more jittery beginnings (see Minor Threat). Rage Against the Machine then crystalized the sensibility for the JumboTron set on MTV. We loved seeing the aesthetic garner acclaim as we bobbed our heads and pushed out our chins on the beat.
But Dummy took those hip-hop staples in the opposite direction, into the sugary dream-pop of Cocteau Twins, say, or the smoky, Gallic charm of Serge Gainsbourg, completely new territory for us. Portishead’s debut challenged us to expand our horizons, offering us a seat for a chin-stroking session, even while preserving the disaffected mien of hardcore punk. It promoted college-rock discernment and taste-making, rather than hard rock rebellion and activation, yet all the while retaining the deep groove of our beloved hip-hop break beats.
Along with those break beats came the vinyl scratch, an as yet tenuous device in the pop rock world, although, thanks to bands like Urban Dance Squad, one that was increasingly becoming more and more familiar. The sound is certainly passé in 2019 — nothing so telegraphs the ‘90s as a vinyl scratch in a pop song — so it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary this marriage was at the time.
Looking back, I can almost hear the Berlin wall crumble to the ground inside this boundary-busting sound. The tactile rub of the needle, evidence of a creeping electronica, left rock & roll’s anti-electronic hegemony in a similar rubble.
Borrowing the technique from the DJ and hip-hop world, Portishead, along with other trip-hop pioneers, adumbrated the coming diaspora of overlapping genres, the online streaming-bazaar we reflexively assume to comprise the contemporary audio marketplace. They fused the once-competing vernaculars of pop/rock and turntablism into a meaningful whole, placing a prescient, early step onto the path toward our vast online encyclopedia today.
I’d already been introduced to electronica, specifically via Björk’s first record in 1993 (not coincidentally titled Debut), the landmark hybrid of alt-house and pop electronica that further shook the old guard of ‘80s genre segregation. The album was a critical push of the envelope on traditional alt-rock formulas, incorporating programmed beats and indigenous percussion, but its authenticity as a synthesis of dance and rock relied heavily on its mass appeal.
Dummy, coming in a year later — after the death of Kurt Cobain in April of 1994 —challenged Björk’s vision of ‘90s bonhomie and darkened the mood. Along with that now-dated beacon of ‘90s globalism — the “wicca wicca” of the vinyl scratch —Portishead would help contrive an authentic, though somber voice of change only a handful of years before the major events of the following decade: before Bush v Gore, 9/11, Iraq, JAY-Z and the rise of the hip-hop mogul, the decline of rock & roll, social media and the smartphone, events that seemed to spell further changes, this time with the very framing of our engagement with media.
If I had to pick one song that represents this “foretelling” aspect, I’d have to say that “Wandering Star” does the job of pointing to the aughts best. The song is marked by an unstoppable, lugubrious bass ostinato, resembling a slow-moving hearse, as sampled harmonica and vinyl scratches buzz around, like flies chasing a rhino. Beth Gibbons’ vocals here sound imprisoned in a gorgeous machine of sound, and crinkles of dust on vinyl, the delicate pops pattering onto the audio like raindrops on a window, not only add warmth, but also hint at the coming obsession with nostalgia.
It’s difficult to call to mind a more coalitional album than Portishead’s debut, a recording that so resembles a patchwork quilt, able to stitch electronica to college rock, hip-hop to post-punk, British shoegaze to, yes, even American grunge. The singular genius of Björk notwithstanding, Portishead’s “Debut” straddled the zeitgeist with greater seriousness and, ironically, an even broader sensibility. Portishead merged two worlds on this recording, the acoustic and the electronic, into a profound unity. The album is at once recessive mystery and rousing performance, equally a studio record, locked in the computer, equally a live one, presentable to the crowds.
Cinematic worlds abound on Dummy, the spaghetti western being the most obvious, although intimations of film noir and nouvelle vague are present as well. The cover contains a still from “To Kill a Dead Man,” a vaguely meaningful, black and white silent short the band scored and performed in (not as themselves but as characters in the espionage flick itself).
The short, although hardly a positive addition to the genre of experimental film (Christopher Nolan would conjure these vibes more adroitly in his masterful first feature, “Following”), seems to clarify the sensibility of the band before they even had an album. The mise-en-scène is cold yet chic, dramatic but campy, mundane yet ethereal. And indeed, “Dead Man” would help secure their record deal. If telegraphing Portishead’s artistic intentions were the only metric by which to judge this film, making it was a hugely successful gambit.
However, Dummy functions best not as a cinematic world, but as a musical inception point and a cultural marker, one with rich associations and autobiographical import. It came at the tail end of the era of the LP, when albums still moved the listener on a personal level, leaving behind emotional waypoints.
Grunge had exposed the shams and conceits of ‘80s pop, from new wave to hair metal. There would be no room in the ‘90s for the pretentious fantasy and theatrical glamour of ‘80s pop and rock, Human League larping as gumshoes, or Mötley Crüe taking a page from Mad Max, as the case may be.
But Dummy, the black hole in the middle of the ‘90s was the inception point that opened a final shell, behind which I still clung to a former time. Its smooth, dark textures soothed my anger, a much-needed sonic barbiturate to wean myself from the adrenalized perk of heavy rock. Unlike their sunnier contemporaries, such as Massive Attack and Morcheeba, bands with more overt crossover appeal, bands who, as it were, built bridges above ground, Dummy’s hybridization of hip-hop and pop music was an underwater tunnel — a deep place where I could meet it without distraction, where I, already absorbing the sad shocks of the sunset on the 20th century, greeted it with relief.
Carlos Dengler is a freelance actor, musician, writer, memoirist, composer and filmmaker living in New York City. He is completing post-production on a festival-bound short film called Iowa that he wrote, directed and starred in, along with composing the score and editing it. He has written for n+1, Seven Stories Press and is working with Foundry Literary + Media on writing his first memoir. He performed a critically acclaimed one person show for NY Fringe Festival in 2016, entitled Homo Sapiens Interruptus and guest performed with the 8G band, the Late Night with Seth Meyers house band. Carlos worked with director Terry Kinney at Lincoln Center Theater in 2016 and performed with Da Camera of Houston portraying Marcel Proust in a devised theatre piece with music in 2017. He received an MFA from the Graduate Acting program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2015 and was the founding bass player and keyboardist for the band Interpol from 1997 to 2010.
(Photo credit: Niels van Iperen/Getty Images)
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