Yoko Ono waited many years for her time in the sun. After decades fighting against the current as an artist and being used as a scapegoat in the culture wars, she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves as a thinker and an activist. As a conceptual artist, her ideas were ahead of her time; her early work dealt with women’s issues and cultural identity in a way that was too confrontational to earn respect at a time when even the “socially progressive” worlds of music and art were still, at heart, deeply racist and patriarchal. Today, as the social conventions that were still so strong in the 1960’s have weakened, generations of young artists have been influenced by Ono’s work. She’s come to be seen not only as a major cultural shaper, but she’s also become a kind of scary/cool grandmother figure who works with and supports young talent. Her music has had a resurgence alongside her artwork, and she’s released a series of acclaimed concept album. Ono’s strength has always been in her innovative ideas, but she’s – at one time notoriously – not a particularly gifted musician. She’s done her best musical work in collaboration with – quote unquote – real musicians with the skills to make her thoughts tuneful, such as her late husband and more recently, her son. Lately, she’s invited famous friends to help reimagine some of the best songs from throughout her career. Yes, I’m A Witch and Yes, I’m A Witch, Too are probably her most accessible records, thanks to collaborators like Ben Gibbard, Moby and in this case, Portugal. The Man. It makes for a great introduction to the musical side of Yoko Ono’s work.
I never get tired of listening to Evil Friends. Ever since 2013, it’s been a favorite. One thing comes to mind now, though, that goes a long way towards explaining why Portugal. The Man appeals to me so much. It’s that I really like male singers with high voices. It’s pretty unusual and I find it charming. John Gourley’s entire vocal range is full-on falsetto. Not as much as Rhye’s lead singer Milosh, who sounds so much like a woman that it blows away the entire concept of biological gender itself, but Gourley definitely has a uniquely androgynous voice. Without seeing what the group looks like, you could question if the singer is male or female, or even come to the conclusion that there’s one of both. Then you see them and they’re just a bunch of totally average-looking dudes. Like, not even the kind of dudes who think they’re hot edgy rebellious rock stars for wearing eyeliner and earrings. Just a bunch of guys who need to shave better. But, damn, they sound like nothing else.
It’s always tricky to guess what, out of things that seem catchy and appealing at any given moment, will still be those things when the moment has passed. It’s the cold and unpredictable eye of history, which consigns most popular fads to the memory hole while exalting some obscure thing that only 25 people had noticed as world-changing. I know that not everything I initially wanted to listen to every day ended up staying a favorite, and the reverse. The year before last I declared Portugal. The Man’s Woodstock to be one of my favorite albums of the year. I pre-ordered it on vinyl and everything, being all ahead of the curve and whatnot, and now I have to live with hearing a soft-pop cover of Feel It Still as a corporate workplace playlist staple. That’s a pretty hard tumble from indie and cool into corporate-approved fake indie cool. Nonetheless, it’s not shaking me from my faith that this record is a keeper. History will decide what it will, but I’m going to go on listening to Woodstock like it’s the hit of the week.
Portugal. The Man are from Alaska, which means that they can see Russia from their house (Lord, I never get tired of that joke!) which should give them a unique perspective of what it means to be American. Seriously, though, Alaska is not a proper state; it has a different history, demographic makeup and culture than the proper United States, not to mention a radically different environment. I would imagine that being Alaskan actually would give one a nice remove from which to watch the American culture wars. Just don’t expect to hear about it from this band. Portugal. The Man is not here to write polemics or make comments about the unfolding world. Their songs are not about anything you can put your finger on – they’re just poetic and melodic. And that’s really a relief. I don’t actually want to hear another song about what it means to be ‘so American’ – I already know it’s not gonna be anything good. I just want to hear a catch song.
Going back to the summer of 2013, a great year for music. It must’ve been some kind of serendipity, but I discovered a lot of artists in 2013. There were just so many great songs on the radio, the kind that make you say to yourself, “What is this, I want more!” Portugal. The Man was one of those groups, with some amazingly catchy songs like Modern Jesus and Purple Yellow Red and Blue. The album Evil Friends has become a favorite, a definite keeper, one of those records that you remember an entire decade by. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend it.
In case you didn’t know it, Portugal. The Man is from Alaska. You normally wouldn’t guess that, given their breezy psychedelic vibes. Also, it’s not like there’s any such things as ‘Alaska vibes’. There’s California vibes and New York City vibes, Southern rock and Chicago blues. But Alaska is somewhat underrepresented in pop culture, so ‘frozen wasteland vibes’ hasn’t been a part of the American music scene. (Meanwhile Europe has Scandinavian black metal and Swedish electronica.) I’m not suggesting that American music fans need more songs about shooting moose or whatever, but it could be an interesting aesthetic if someone wanted to develop one. Portugal. The Man aren’t exactly out to make that a thing – their aesthetic is far too eclectic to be shoeboxed as an aesthetic at all. But here they’re leaning into the white frontier culture, and remind us why man-against-nature epics keep being popular.
Portugal. The Man, stealin’ from the sixties again. Can’t complain about it – they nail the whole psychedelic rock sound so well that if I didn’t know better I’d be wondering what obscure Haight-Ashbury collective is responsible for this. They got it right, right down to the song titles. What I can’t help but wonder with these guys is just how serious they’re being. You can’t fault their musicality, but is there a subtle element of ironic mockery at play? It may be that I’ve just been raised to expect ironic mockery in everything and have a hard time accepting sincere homage as real, being the jaded millennial that I am. But this is now, and you can’t just sell sunshiny melodies without a dark evil underside. If you’ve ever watched any of Portugal. The Man’s videos, they’re usually as dark as the songs are tuneful. If the music isn’t exactly ironic – and I think that it’s too lovingly well made to be – then it’s at least self-aware.