Portishead – Glory Box (1994, Go! Discs)
Why It’s Perfect: Most female songs about desire tend to be about the fun side, the playful blushing got-you-in-my-sights-ness of crushing; they don’t speak to reality so much as the basic pleasure of wanting or being wanted. Portishead’s Glory Box is about the weariness of love as much as anything, the painful honesty and intensity emotions take on well after the pubs have closed for the evening. It yearns. It’s kinda like Etta James’ At Last turned in on itself, dilated with the same all-consuming emotion but more cautious, fearful of being hurt, willing to give in to love again, but conscious of the consequences. The lyrics, which tell of a (supposedly) former wild woman looking to settle into a life of monogamy, sketch out some of the emotional space I’ve been describing here, but much of the nuance and characterization stems from singer Beth Gibbons’ performance. Her voice is beautiful and clear, but it has a touch of the cigarette smoke she constantly puffs, a slightly imperfect rasp that lends credibility to her story. On the verses she embodies the teasing self-confidence of a girl who knows what she’s got and how it effects a man; listen to the way she coos “Move over, and give us some room.” But each time the chorus hits she lets her guard slip, and the result is almost uncomfortably naked, this sense of an aging woman belatedly trying to settle into a more permanent love; “give me a reason to love you. / Give me a reason to be a woman.” It’s a pitch to a man certainly, but also to herself; she’s wants this man to be the right one so badly that he need only give commitment and she’ll do the rest.
Aside from Gibbons, the other star of the track is guitarist Adrian Utley. While Gibbons is more than capable of conveying complex emotion on her own, it’s Utley’s clanging, overdriven guitar that gives the Glory Box its captivating intensity. That melody he plays during the chorus is quite conventional save for the way he phrases it, just wrenching the notes out of the guitar somehow, creating this angular howl that contracts itself into a series of escalating climaxes. His solo is a gorgeous piece of work too, taking his time and letting you taste the metallic richness of the sound. It tears through the crackling vintage 45 production of the track, making very clear that for all it’s beautiful vocalization and haunting string arrangements, this isn’t some distant old soul record; Portishead have seen and felt too much since that simpler pop era to create such a comforting novelty.
Defining Moment: Towards the end of the song Gibbons cries “This is the beginning of forever… and ever…” It’s a strange, obsessive conclusion that doesn’t seem to be borne out by the rest of the lyrics, one of those decisions where someone wants something so bad they force it. As if responding to this, Gibbons’ voice becomes unexpectedly processed and distorted, as the soundtrack collapses into a huge, hollow trip-hop beat. It’s a twist you don’t see coming so late in a track, and effect is disorienting yet exhilarating for that very reason.
Other Great Songs by Portishead: While Glory Box is not especially indicative of the inventive programming and experimental nature of Portishead’s work, its cinematic (sorry to use that word again, but it fits) scope, bittersweet emotional tone and hypnotic sound are hallmarks of the band. All three of Portishead’s studio records, as well as their 1998 Roseland NYC Live document (which features a superb version of Glory Box), are classics in their genre and come highly recommended. For those seeking a wider sampling of their songs before diving in, Mysterons, Sour Times, All Mine, Over and Machine Gun are all magnetic wonders.