Note: What follows is the original proposal for the book that became Portishead's Dummy in Continuum's esteemed 33 1/3 series. Apart from the removal of some biographical elements at the end, this is the document exactly as it was sent to Continuum in response to their call for proposals at the end of 2008. You can also read my thoughts on the process itself, with a massive YMMV disclaimer.
* * *
22 December 2008
Pitch for 33 1/3 series:
Dummy by Portishead
by RJ Wheaton
An album which created and exhausted a genre at the same time, Portishead's Dummy is both a product of the musical, social, and cultural trends that created "trip-hop", and an ambitious artistic achievement which prefigured many of the aesthetic trends of the digital music revolution.
Very much a child of the early-90s Bristol scene, Dummy is nonetheless an amalgamation of influences, traditions, sounds, samples, and textures from hip-hop, rock, jazz, folk, soul, funk, blues, and more. It brings these elements together in ways that make it unclassifiable in any of those terms. Its breakthrough appeal to a mainstream, international audience spawned numerous imitators and made it the aural template for soundtracks, commercials, and a wide swath of popular music during the mid-90s. Yet there is an avant-garde experimentalism to Dummy that underlies the heart-felt lyrics, silky melodies, thunderous bass figures, propulsive beats, and sweeping soundtrack samples which made it such an immediate critical and commercial success.
Like Tricky's Maxinquaye and Massive Attack's Blue Lines and Protection, Dummy is still thought to be 'cooler than thou' – a nihilistic celebration of disenchantment and alienation. It lacks the familiar quality of yearning that characterizes so many first albums; its tone and pace can seem cold and its lyrics unforgiving.
But Dummy provokes an intense physical reaction. The album's resonant bass reaches into your chest and massages your heart; organ samples swamp you with warmth. The cool fingertips of Beth Gibbon's voice reach out to caress your wounded wounded heart. The austerity of the album's arrangements is irresistibly intimate; its strangeness is constant and enthralling. There is something unfinished, partial, imperfect about its melodies. The lyrics are shards of meaning that require the listener to put them together. Sudden contrasts in volume will make you lean in, straining to hear a fragile lyric, before you are struck by the mechanical piston of a bassline.
Dummy compels intimacy. Songs emerge from the silence as shapes without form. Shards of lyrics and sound—textures and samples and phrases—appear out of nothing and coalesce as if by force of gravity or inertia alone. The music comes upon you and holds itself together only by force of what it provokes within your own memories and impressions and expectations—only to fall away undone and unresolved into darkness. Dummy is an album that reassembles itself with every listen and with each listener. And so it can become many things at the same time. A sequence of perfect meditations on loneliness and solitude – on the unforgiving familiarity of our own thoughts. Promises of the narcotizing power of love and the anonymous consolations of the night. The unmooring influence upon the soul of unrequited and obsessive desire. A celebration of jaded naiveté and a coy and insouciant indifference to self.
It is, in whole, spectacularly beautiful, permanently unique, and utterly unlike anything else in popular music.
Instead of providing a dry cultural background followed by track-by-track criticism, my book will imitate the cumulative structure of the album itself. Vignettes will gradually piece together portraits and character sketches, impressions of time and place, cultural criticism, and, of course, a thorough description, analysis, and exploration of the music itself. These will coalesce into a complete and thickly-weaved picture of Dummy's unique character and its place in culture. This impressionistic montage/vignette form is exemplified by D J Waldie's incredible memoir of suburbia, Holy Land, by the writing of Sven Lindqvist, and by Michael Ondaatje's study of New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter.
The book will form a cumulative picture of the following aspects of the album:
Background—what materials were in the collective 'ether' in 1994? How did these influence the creation of Dummy?
- Cultural—the cultural politics of Thatcher's England; the place of hip-hop culture within 1980s and 1990s Britain.
- Social—who were the listening public for Dummy; what trends had made them ready for music of this type?
- Musical—the Bristol scene and fellow travelers (Smith & Mighty, Bomb the Bass, Soul II Soul, The Wild Bunch, Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack, Earthling). The dense jazz-inflected aesthetics of hip-hop's golden age that influenced Geoff Barrow; the jazz and folk scenes that informed the contributions of Adrian Utley and Beth Gibbons.
- Biographical—who are Portishead? Who were the people involved directly (band members, engineers, producers) or indirectly (friends, listeners to demos, hangers-on) in the making of Dummy? What was their role in (and impressions of) the process?
Production—what were the aesthetic decisions that went into the album?
- How was the music put together? What was the song-writing process?
- Why were particular samples used? What instrumental decisions where made? What were the decisions made on a song-by-song, sound-by-sound basis?
- How was the tracklisting determined? Why the extra track in the American release (and yet another one in the Canadian release)?
- Critical response—how was the album reviewed? The Mercury award. The controversial 'trip-hop' label.
- Popularity—The downtempo club scene; radio play; sales; how the album reached a mass audience.
- Personal responses—how has the music reached, touched, and been experienced by listeners across the world?
- The use of the album in soundtracks, commercials; its lasting influence on these forms.
- Direct influence on other performers (Sneaker Pimps, Lamb, etc.) including international influence (e.g. Lebanese group Soapkills).
- Influence on downtempo/triphop scene in the 1990s; ongoing influence on music and production techniques.
- Further listening; Portishead remixes and production work; later projects (second album; Rustin Man; McKay)
I intend to interview widely where possible, ideally including the band and those directly involved in the production of the album. However, since the focus of the book is less on the production of the album than on the unique listening experience it provides each person, I would like to "crowd source" some of the book, soliciting responses from the public. What experiences have people had with Dummy? What moments has it enhanced; what perceptions and memories have been colored by its sounds? What are people's favourite moments in the album—and why? What does Dummy mean to you?
This approach would be conducted online, with an open discussion forum to provoke active participation. I would follow up on the most interesting responses with direct interviews, securing consent for the material to be included in the book. Enough interest exists to support this endeavour: the MySpace page for Portishead's third album has been viewed almost 6 million times; Dummy itself has sold more than 2 million copies in Europe.
I believe that this approach would set a new standard for writing about music, bringing together traditional criticism with an anthropological "thick description" of how people listen to a specific piece of music and what place it occupies in their lives. On publication such a approach would yield numerous opportunities for publicity: articles about the process itself, about why so little music criticism makes direct use of the perception of the audience. There are also the questions it would attempt to answer: How does the experience of listening differ now from the time of album's release 1994? How has digital distribution changed the way we experience music? What is the role of memory in our listening experience? How does music inform, enrich, and sustain our lives? These issues make great material for accompanying articles, radio programmes, and blog discussion—all of which I would aim to provoke and contribute to in a proactive manner.
Dummy raises important questions about contemporary music. The minimalist production strips sounds away from their origins; the music becomes a composite of gestures, surfaces, and textures. There is a contextless that seemed radical at the time but now seems like a commonplace technique of digital production. Sounds usually alien to one another cohere in combinations that reflect the transient, contingent nature of human relationships—to each other and to music. What does this kind of musical production—this weightlessness—mean? What does it mean when music is pieced together not around traditional songcraft but instead around the organic requirements of the moment? What does it mean for the listening experience? What does it mean for the album as a form? What does the controversy over the term 'trip hop' tell us about the idea of musical genre in the age of digital distribution? What does it mean when music leaves so much to the interpretation of the listener? Who really "owns" music in these terms?
I would attempt to explore these wider questions with the kind of open-mindedness and clinical insight that Susan Sontag exemplified in On Photography. The ballast of the book, however, would be the kind of clear, transparent narrative that can be found in the finest non-fiction journalism (John McPhee; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood). Indeed, my favorite book in the 33 1/3 series is Douglas Wolk's take on James Brown's Live at the Apollo, which uses factual research and vivid, dramatic presentation to create a narrative drive that is completely in the spirit of the album it complements.
Above all, the book would attempt to show how so many people have, collectively, made a quintessential headphone album into a nightclub album; how they made the product of a niche local scene an international success. How an innovative, experimental album became the iconic sound for the better part of a decade and a roadmap for musical production in the digital age.