A look back at Dummy by Portishead

Despite the band’s aversion to publicity, Portishead drew significant attention thanks to their first album, Dummy.

Released on October 24th, 1994, Dummy was preceded by a short, three-track album preview released under the title Numb. Portishead had initially gained attention by composing the soundtrack for a short film that the group had made, called To Kill a Dead Man. The album cover of Dummy features a still shot of Portishead singer Beth Gibbons clipped from the eleven-minute film.

The band’s memorable name is derived from a town outside of Bristol in the UK where founding member Geoff Barrow lived as a teenager. Before meeting future band members Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley, Barrow assisted in the production of Blue Lines, Massive Attack’s breakthrough album and one of the frontrunners of trip hop, a new genre upon which Portishead would expand. Trip hop developed in and around Bristol. It combines the breakbeat rhythms and sampling of hip hop and funk with the downtempo, instrumental elements of electronica. The sounds are blended together until it is difficult to identify one musical style from the other, and trip hop becomes its own genre.

Dummy did much to bring trip hop to a larger audience. It is ambient and atmospheric with a hip hop pulse, albeit slow, that adds texture to the album. The smoky, catchy “Sour Times” is a good example of the mixed styles.

Later becoming one of the band’s most popular singles, “Sour Times” combines a Rhodes piano, Hammond organ, and guitar to create a noir feel under Gibbons’ whispy, floating vocals. The chorus, which is lyrically very straightforward, reads “’Cause nobody loves me / It’s true / Not like you do.” Gibbons stretches each phrase to a tenuous, emotionally charged end. Her contralto voice unifies and gives direction to the album, adding a layer of eroticism that the instruments and mixing approach but do not wholly achieve on their own.

Perhaps the most popular song to come off of Dummy is “Glory Box.” It stands out as playful on this album and showcases Gibbons’ range. Her vocals are sometimes deep and urgent – a nod to jazz singers – and other times sailing into the upper register.

The electric guitar infuses a vein of rock into the otherwise pared down track. The message is as direct as the music, “Give me a reason to love you / Give me a reason to be a woman.”

Dummy was a critical success. John Bush of Allmusic summarizes the albums best qualities by explaining, “Dummy merged the pinpoint-precise productions of the dance world with pop hallmarks like great songwriting and excellent vocal performances.” 

The album made it to number two on the UK charts, ranking slightly lower in the US. In 1995, Dummy won the highly esteemed Mercury Prize, which is awarded annually to the best album released in Ireland and the UK.

The success was celebrated with a performance at London’s Savoy Hotel. Naturally inclined to stay out of the spotlight, Portishead kept a low profile until the release of their self-titled follow-up album three years later, which boasted a less produced, grittier sound but enjoyed equal critical success.

Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN