Despite belonging to a short-lived, butt-of-a-million-jokes genre, Dummy is actually an ok album – overrated, hilariously so, but fine. Y’see, the mid-nineties were around the time that “alternative rock,” being the behemoth it was thanks to breakout efforts from Nirvana and R.E.M. early in the decade, had begun to get a little out of hand. Dummy‘s release in 1994 actually predates the moment that obnoxious (but sometimes great) grandiosity overtook any semblance of sincerity and emotion in the alternative, and being influential to many rock acts who absorbed the band’s love for dark, unsettling hip hop beats and mid-tempo jazz, it’s safe to say they both precluded and spawned said movement. When Mellon Collie and OK Computer hit record store shelves in 1996 and ’97 respectively, many turned back to look at the experimental acts who helped usher in this new era – and, yes, Portishead were certainly one. The deep, thrumming basslines, often just a few notes repeating in a simple pattern through the whole track; soft washes of keyboards, floating over and under the mix like liquid mercury; the up-front drum samples, all high tones, tapping and skittering around; and of course Beth Gibbons, who in my eyes perhaps gets a little too much credit as a vocalist here – never been much of a fan of the way she often tries to swing around the beat like a jazz singer. It’s a very safe approach to this sound, I think, and probably the main reason the album gets pegged often as the soft rock version of a hip hop record; something you could put on in the background, approachable enough for parents and kids alike, but dark and angsty enough to appeal to the anguished teens who just three years later would be spinning OK Computer for the hundredth time that summer. I guess my problem is this sort of sound, this level of “seriousness,” doesn’t really grab me – Dummy is not as sincere, nor as self-reflective, as anyone’d have you believe, and you won’t get many people talking about how this album makes them feel much at all. I listen, and it sounds good, I guess. It’s well-made music, undeniably, and the performances and arrangements all around are fine. I like the strutting drumrolls of “Mysterons,” pretty much the only thing propelling that track into motion at all. I like the Gibbons’ singing on “Sour Times,” hitting the beat in juuuuust the right way to where I’m captivated. And the classic “Glory Box” is awesome – even if I don’t like it much. Languid, creeping, sexy, distraught, all good things. I just don’t like that Dummy seems to have come into the position it has by being a Radiohead influence and one of the first of its kind in an inessential genre – two sure signs of a record being overrated to hell and back. So, yeah, I don’t like it much – too stilted, too distant, too self-serious for my taste, at my age. But I think the record’s appeal, and its accomplishment, is undeniable – for better or for worse (read: worse), it helped to move alternative rock to a more serious (read: unbearable) place that it resides in to this day. Dummy‘s the sort of album I could see myself having really enjoyed at 17, but I was a fucking moron at 17, so I’m not sure what that says about the record… or me, really.
(Lowered from a B+ on 04 April 2017 because listening to it more it’s not even that good.)