As tempting as it is to brand Portishead’s debut as the definitive trip-hop record, Dummy is really a genre in itself. It took the dance foundations of Massive Attack and applied a greater sense of songwriting to the equation, resulting in one of the major landmarks of the ’90s.
Spooking as much as it satisfies, Dummy is defined by a few aspects, not least its spectacularly bleak atmosphere, but hanging over its ominous backdrop is the somber voice of Beth Gibbons. Her chilling vocals are as eerie as they are beautiful, conjoining organically with the instrumentation to achieve one of the slickest combinations found in contemporary music. I have no hesitancy branding the vocal performance on Dummy as one of the best on any record, of any time. Throughout the album Gibbons sounds ghostly, angelic, sometimes frightening, and on “Roads” — the album’s centerpiece — her expression is heart achingly beautiful.
For all its despair, Dummy remains strangely irresistible. It’s a record that is as sexy as it is sad, with its outlawed desires seeping through the dark web that only partially covers the shadowy tones of “Mysterons” and “Numb”. By the time we reach “Glory Box”, the only love/lust song of ‘94 to rival “Closer” in sincerity, the secret is out. Dummy is a wonderful record that is undoubtedly of its time, yet continues to thrive in the headspace of the modern listener.
9 out of 10
Sensuous and glum, Dummy is all you can reasonably ask of a debut album. It announces itself as something new and distinct, and manages to do so with the wry, measured air of a veteran. Portishead’s murky, submerged sound provides a near-perfect accompaniment for Beth Gibbons’ near-perfect voice. It seems unfair for a human to be able to sound as beautiful as she does, but Dummy doesn’t waste the privilege.
The work hits on a seriously sombre verve in the opener “Mysterons” and barely lets up all the way through. From the clunking groove of “Strangers” to the tender melodies and swelling souls of “It’s A Fire” and “Roads”, there is no shortage of wistful flair on show. It’s clear why the album’s blue, gloomy shadow looms so large, although I do think some of its sharpness has been lost in the years since its release.
As meticulously produced as the songs are in sound, in composition they do occasionally scramble to keep up with the majesty of the voice guiding them. Dummy’s murkiness is part of what makes it so emblematic of the ‘90s, but I also think that quality cuts the record off from being iconic in its own right.
8 out of 10
Portishead’s debut, Dummy, may be over two decades old, but their distinctively ’90s, trip-hop sound hasn’t aged a bit. From the opener, “Mysterons”, the album is immediately shrouded in eerie, ominous atmosphere. Melding orchestral and jazz samples with surging beats and melody lines that remain intense despite their minimal construction, Dummy is intriguing for the listener throughout its tracklist.
Floating effortlessly above these layers of sampled and effected instrumentation, vocalist Beth Gibbons provides one of the most distinctive elements of Portishead’s music. Always delicately yet firmly delivered, Gibbons proves her versatility, especially when comparing tracks like “It’s a Fire” and “Glory Box”, and often commands the whole character of the track with her vocals.
With its sample punctured, jazz-infused, sulky, and sometimes sultry aesthetic, Dummy flows for close to an hour without ever outstaying its welcome, and has provided me with some of the most memorable moments in music. Spooky, smooth, and sensational.
9 out of 10