Albums Revisited: Portishead ‘Dummy’ Turns 20

Albums Revisited: Portishead ‘Dummy’ Turns 20: The trio’s epic languor sounds as vital as ever on its 20th anniversary. 

August 22nd marks the 20th anniversary of Portishead’s trip hop masterpiece ‘Dummy.’  And the band is celebrating that milestone by releasing a commemorative vinyl reissue.

But what makes their 1994 dour opus remain so compelling after all these years?

Indeed, of many landmark albums turning 20 this year, ‘Dummy’ has aged better than most.

But why? The main reason is the album’s ability to weave several eras of musical styles (hip-hop, soul, vintage soundtracks) into a seamless package.

The band formed in the town of Bristol, England, becoming associated with the 90’s Bristol Scene sound. The scene invented the trip-hop template; offbeat samples, hip-hop beats, and soulful vocals. Massive Attack were an early pioneer, and Portishead member Geoff Barrow did production work on their groundbreaking début ‘Blue Lines.’

Barrow, along with vocalist Beth Gibbons and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Utley would create their own variation on the Trip-hop sound. And their harrowing, heady brew would take the genre in a much darker direction.

The 90’s were full of gloomy tunes; Grunge reveled in emotional unraveling and general malaise. But Portishead’s bleakness was more elegantly beautiful, and darkly romantic. The band used left-of-center samples to dramatic effect. Their hit ‘Sour Times‘ was based off of a sample from the ‘Mission Impossible’ television show. Other samples of note include Isaac Hayes ‘Ike’s Rap 2’ on the soulful ‘Glory Box’, and Johnny Ray’s ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ on ‘Biscuit’.

By extrapolating those samples over hip-hop beats and record scratching, listeners were caught in a musical time warp. It felt as sexy and dangerous as a James Bond movie, and as vulnerable as alt-rock heartache. There were also eerie, disquieting sounds straight from vintage sci-fi and horror films.

But all these soundscapes wouldn’t have their impact without the tortured, wise-beyond-her-years wail of vocalist Beth Gibbons. She provides the emotional through line to guide one’s ears through the heady sonic stew. Her lyrics were equally powerful, in particular on ‘Glory Box’, which showcases equal parts vulnerability and steely resolve; I’m so tired of playing/Playing with this bow and arrow/Gonna give my heart away/Leave it to the other girls to play...

‘Dummy’ was hugely influential upon its release, influencing albums such as fellow Bristol native Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye‘, and groups like the Sneaker Pimps and Hooverphonic.

Click here to see where Maxinquaye and Dummy rank on our list of Darkest Albums

But it’s a testament to how influential it remains, inspiring contemporary artists as diverse as Kanye West, Lana Del Ray,  the XX, Chelsea Wolfe, and London Grammar.

The band would go on to make their sound even bleaker on their self-titled 1997 follow-up, and would abandon their trip-hop template for harsher textures on their brilliant 2008 album ‘Third.’

It appears the band is working on a new album, but there wouldn’t be the fevered anticipation of a new release if not for the lasting indelible imprint of their début album. Depression never sounded sexier…

Do you have found memories of ‘Dummy’? Tell me in the comments. And you can order the album on iTunes and Amazon on vinyl, cd, or MP3 via the links below:

[amazon_image id=”B00LP298LY” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Dummy: Limited Blue Vinyl[/amazon_image][amazon_image id=”B000W022XG” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Dummy[/amazon_image]

And click here to see all entries in our Albums Revisited series.


About SLIS

Middle Aged Gen-Exer obsessed with Alternative rock, metal, cult movies, comic books and cable TV.

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2 Responses to Albums Revisited: Portishead ‘Dummy’ Turns 20

  1. Gerad Forte August 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm #


    I love Dummy! And I love Portishead.

    But I was about 10 years late to the party. I wasn’t following the scene that they came up during that time. Though I should I have been

    Correction…I was. In 1994 I was heavy into the The Brand New Heavies. They Heavies were more mainstream by then and the sound was more pristine. I loved their musicianship. One of the tightest pockets on he planet.

    I discovered Portishead on Pandora through some chain of events that started with Fiona Apple. Their sound jumped out at me. It was the most interesting music I had heard in years. I immediately jumped on Amazon and picked up Dummy and the Self Titled album.

    For me their sound is contemporary with Wu-Tang. Grimy. And dope. I am an gen x’er too. I always feel something special when I hear Portishead. Their music captures something that existed just before the music world spun out of control.


    • SLIS August 22, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

      They kind of fit every occasion I think. It’s sinister but also delicate. I really liked their 2008 album too, but I miss their vinyl scratching. I’d love to see that musical movement make a comeback. I think that the two best trip=hop albums are probably ‘Dummy’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’, I think Massive Attack totally got inspired by Portishead because their previous work wasn’t nearly as dark as that album.

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