The album begins with one of the best tracks, and certainly the most sinister in "Cowboys." Much like Bjork's 1995 hit, "Army of Me," "Cowboys" promises doom and dread upon an unnamed recipient with lines like "But don't despair, this day will be the damnedest day if, oh, you take these things from me." This is like the anthem of the black widow woman of the night, realizing who she is deep down, and daring anyone to stop her. The song has just enough of a cynical sway to set the tone for the tracks to come, which are both often romantic and gloomy in one. The hip hop record scratches that come toward the end make this tune distinctive and unique, a subtle departure from the band's 1994 debut.
"Undenied" is up next. Its melancholy chimes begin immediate and imminently, serving as the precursor for the grainy record effect added to the smooth beat, borrowed from all the best elements of a mid-90s hip hop track. "Undenied" is an unconventional crooner, asking all the important questions like "Where does my heart belong?" The femme has allowed herself to get too close to her victim and is now second-guessing her intentions and her feelings on this track, a calculated decompression of true sentiment. The grainy record effect is excellent, as is the beat, as is the solemnity of the lyrics themselves.
"Over" is gloomy from the start, a lonely, singular acoustic guitar plucking an anthem of doom and nefarious intention. "Oh, this uncertainty is taking me over," croons Gibbons over the heavy blitzkrieg beats, record scratches,and thundering bass line. Towards the end of the track, an electric guitar enters the fray to add to the suspense of the track. I first owned the cassette of this album years and years ago, and "Over" was the last song on the first side - a mood piece designed to wrap up the graying, sinister tone set throughout the first 5 tracks of the album.
The last track, "Western Eyes," is probably my favorite on the album. It gives out a smooth, smoky, piano bar sort of vibe. It makes the most of its minimalist effort because sometimes, less is more. It comes across as indifferent, resigned, with lines delivered in the most listless manner possible. "With western eyes and serpent's breath, we lay our own conscience to rest, but I'm aching at the view, yes, I'm breaking at the seams just like you." The beat is soothing but cold, smooth but prickly, with a lonely piano belting out a composition of solitude. At the end, we're treated to a sample from a scratchy old record sample to the tune of "I feel so cold on hooker and gin...this mess we're in." If that doesn't scream debutantes and debonairs in a smoky lounge somewhere, I don't know what does.
Portishead's self-titled sophomore album is an anthem for the mystery woman of the night, the flashy, elusive, dangerous femme fatale sometimes seen in films like Eye of the Beholder with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd. The band's debut album ranks among my top 20, but their second deserves another shot for the flowing, gloomy, and belligerent moods it attempts to, and succeeds at conveying. There is a favorite book of mine, Fake. Liar. Cheat. that I thought about reviewing on this blog. It's antagonist, Claire, is certainly one of these dangerous, mysterious women, with feelings and calculations as wishy-washy as a cat.