Was Portishead album ‘Dummy’ spiritually in line with Nirvana?

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When we think about the 1990s music scene, the increasing rise of alternative rock comes to mind. After bands like Sonic Youth, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr and The Melvins became vital players in the ‘80s, the following decade saw movements like grunge, riot grrrl, trip-hop, shoegaze, post-rock and Britpop emerge. 

It was a time of great musical progression worldwide, but Britain was particularly thriving. Britpop was arguably one of the biggest genres to gain widespread popularity across the country; its quintessentially British features, such as singing about everyday life, drew many fans to these bands, who typically sang in recognisable regional accents. Blur, from London, and Oasis, from Manchester, battled it out to become the most popular, a rivalry that still exists between music fans today.

Over in the United States, grunge picked up pace with the rise of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The former were easily the biggest, their song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ becoming an anthem for disillusioned youth across the country and beyond. Released in 1991, it signalled the start of a new sound, with alternative rock increasingly pushing hair metal out of the mainstream’s assumption of rock. Nirvana were massive, reinventing the alternative rock landscape by blending heavy riffs with pop structures, intending to make the “ultimate pop song” with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Cobain once said.

Over in the United Kingdom, however, grunge didn’t get as big. One genre that did emerge during this period was trip-hop, which fused electronic music with a variety of influences, from jazz and R&B to hip-hop and plenty of vinyl scratching. Alongside acts like Massive Attack, Sneaker Pimps, and Tricky, Portishead emerged as one of the leading bands of the genre. Hailing from Bristol, the group released their debut album, Dummy, in 1994. It is a masterpiece, full of obscure samples and silky beats, all accompanied by Beth Gibbons’ distinctive and rather soulful voice.

Songs like ‘Glory Box’ and ‘Roads’ are easily some of the ‘90s greatest efforts, and other tracks like ‘Mysterons’, ‘Biscuit’, ‘Sour Times’ and ‘Wandering Star’ could all easily make it onto a top 100 list for the decade. Since the album’s release, they have shared two more studio albums, Portishead and Third, cementing them as one of the most impressive bands to have emerged from Britain in the past 30 years. 

Dummy is often labelled the perfect chillout album due to the mellow beats that define certain tracks, like ‘It Could Be Sweet’ and ‘It’s A Fire’. Yet, the band rejects this label, telling The Guardian, “Dummy wasn’t a chillout album. Portishead had more in common with Nirvana.” The group make a great point. You only have to listen to songs like ‘Strangers’, ‘Numb’, ‘Wandering Star’ and ‘Sour Times’ to be confronted with piercing beats and jolting samples, which are hardly what you would associate with ‘chillout’ music.

“When people say that, I find it bizarre,” Geoff Barrow continued, comparing Portishead to Nirvana instead. “I know that sounds ridiculous – but they also had these visceral chord changes, never being harmonically correct.” Certainly, Nirvana’s abrasive riffs and use of soft/quiet contrasts feel much more stylistically in tune with Portishead than artists who were actually making chilled-out songs. When you really think about it, even in ‘It Could Be Sweet’, which is driven by a hazy beat, the song is punctuated by samples and bellowing drums, with Gibbons’ voice moving between gentleness in the verses and a strained, louder delivery in the chorus.

Like Nirvana, Portishead had the harsh/soft balance nailed to a tee. Both bands were incredibly bold in their approach to reinventing the wheel, proving to be effortlessly ahead of the curve. Since the ’90s, they have each maintained cult followings – a testament to their enduring sounds.

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