There should be a reasonable explanation for the sharp musical turn found on Portugal. The Man’s eighth studio album, Woodstock. After the release of the Danger Mouse-produced Evil Friends in 2013, the Portland-based outfit retreated again to the studio with the Beastie Boys’ Mike D for three years to worry over the purported follow up Gloomin + Doomin. This record, though, was ultimately scratched very near its completion, and a fateful reassessment of the band’s musical message lead to the revolutionary-minded street-pop of Woodstock after vocalist/guitarist John Gourley came upon his dad’s ticket stub from the original 1969 Woodstock Festival.
This commentary alone doesn’t account for the new record’s headfirst dive into the deep end of contemporary pop. Despite the risk, the record manages to fall in line with Portugal. The Man’s willingness to move forward in endearing ways.
The lede for the album is less than subtle, as Woodstock opens with a dancefloor reimagining of Richie Havens’ famous improvisational finale to his Woodstock opening set, here sung by Son Little. The song is the first indication of Portugal. The Man’s all-in plunge into the dregs of dub-pop. The band’s newfound reliance on studio trickery, sampling, and folding in the tenets of hip-hop production most assuredly stems from their Danger Mouse/Mike D collaborations. But the most interesting part of this transition is that it has been slow, and well-crafted, despite its relative about-face from the choir-like ‘70s punk-boogie of their early days. “Number One” retains the band’s firm grasp on sultry grooves, stemming from the velvety rhythmic lockdown of drummer Jason Sechrist and bassist Zach Carothers.
“Easy Tiger” is driven by a bold drum beat and the subtleties of Kyle O’Quin’s keyboard flourishes. The track’s complex chord shifts usher in schizophrenic pop dalliances, as Gourley’s tenor skitters above the fray like an androgynous nymph. It’s clear that this shifting of the band’s preferred soundscapes is more aesthetically agreeable to Gourley’s vocals, a fact borne out as the record progresses.
“Live in the Moment” is a secular tune espousing adolescent abandon, which mid-song devolves into an R&B banger in the vein of Like a Prayer-era Madonna, with myriad production tweaks adding to a dizzying menagerie of vocal effects, synth squalls, triggered drums and an anthemic, propulsive vocal from Gourley. It’s another sugary-sweet dancehall jam that shows the band’s musical elasticity.
That versatility is best exemplified, though, on the album’s first single, “Feel It Still.” The ultra-catchy track exhibits the band’s clearest homage to its previous musical identity, mapping Gourley’s soaring, understated vocals over a funk-lite scorcher, replete with handclap rhythms and peppy brass that lends it a Burt Bacharach symphonic undertone. The single is a bold indication of PTM’s affinity for throwback culture, most explicitly when Gourley croons, “I’m a rebel just for kicks now/let me kick it like it’s 1986” with a bit of shy swagger. The song’s pulse is tempered somewhat by the tangible inclusion of guitars, which are mostly buried in the mix on the rest of Woodstock.
“Rich Friends” sneaks an Easter egg as to the band’s shelved LP with the line, “Let me be your little sunshine in all this gloom and doom.” The song is another eminently singable, hummable, danceable tune, despite downer missives like, “Crashing on chardonnay and Adderall/Driving it on into the wonderwall/every day holidays when daddy’s gone/living life like we’re the only ones who know I’m famous.” The song’s thrust comes off as a dis on the decadent lifestyle choices of trust fund kids, with an affinity for the musical tenets of new jack anchored by the slick production of In the Mountain In the Cloud producer John Hill.
There are shades of their Evil Friends experimentations, too, most readily on the late-album track “Mr. Lonely,” a slow-burn ambient rocker that emerges a less overt overhaul of the band’s core strengths, and also its best approximation of urban hip-hop
So then, what might Gloomin + Doomin have sounded like, musically? Lyrically? Both emerge as fair questions to ponder following repeated listens to Woodstock. Will that abandoned record become the sort of mythic, conceptual unicorn akin to Smile, or was there a more glaring reason for the band’s shelving of the material? The world may never know, but Woodstock ought to overshadow those kinds of seductive inquiries. As the album of record, it does aptly chronicle Portugal. The Man’s unabashed musical evolution/experimentation from album to album. Despite its bucolic, peaceful namesake, it’s a decidedly grimey vivisection of millennial pop expressly positioned to act as revolutionary mouthpiece for a generation of the disillusioned.