There are some bands who hone a certain sound, but whose formulas dry up in the light of scrutiny. There are others who constantly morph, though the risk of ostracizing fans often becomes reality. Then there is Portugal. The Man, who has crafted its own niche within the psych-rock world, and manages to shift its sound over and over, even within a single song.
Portugal. The Man’s latest LP, Evil Friends, is the band’s eighth release and stands as another harrowing example of the joys of musical ADD.
Evil Friends begins with a calm, albeit wonky, synth line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Residents album. Singer John Gourley sings, “Everything carries weight, everything is the same, and we are all together,” toeing the line between profundity and a silly parody of a Beatles lyric—again, not dissimilar to The Residents.
Portugal. The Man may be worlds away from being too weird to handle, but it exemplifies how rock and pop have taken a turn toward strangeness.
Evil Friends has textures and touches of weirdness, though it maintains a broad range of accessibility, and these facets allow Portugal to crank out new albums and secure a spot on the festival circuit year in and year out.
The first track, “Plastic Soldiers,” doesn’t stay in any one place for long, and the same can be said for all of Evil Friends. As “Plastic Soldiers” ends, a chorus of voices lifts the calm spirit of the song before a flux of warping synth replaces it, and from it comes the joyous piano of “Creep in a T-Shirt.” These on-a-dime changes are the standard for Evil Friends.
These frequent shifts don’t mean that Portugal. The Man doesn’t suffer from overlap. “Creep in a T-Shirt” and mid-album track “Atomic Man” vary in structure and texture; however, the key and progression sounds uncomfortably similar. The soft piano outro of “Atomic Man” seems to use the same chords as the main chunk of “Creep in a T-Shirt,” though it has a little up-tempo face lift for good measure.
In some ways, this reeks of a lack of creativity. Much of the album rests on four chords cranked out on piano or guitar, a psychedelic-pop synth line, anthemic hooks, and equally anthemic sing-songy vocals. But it does draw a commonality for Evil Friends and give the album a distinct flow.
The title track is at the height of this flow. A bright, Fender Rhodes-sounding lick on the keys carries along with a lamenting Gourley. In the background, an off-kilter clunk can be heard, which shifts in pitch and repetition until an acoustic guitar rises from the ashes of this freaky twist.
“Modern Jesus,” an apparent disclaiming of Christian dogma, has a driving and dancey vibe. As the chorus rings out, a string section begins to dance with an acoustic riff as Gourley’s vocals swoon over it all. It’s a well-orchestrated section, another instance of the genius that can arise from Portugal. The Man’s formula.
Another part of this formula is Gourley’s satirical alter-egos. On “Atomic Man,” Gourley sings about himself as a pseudo-super hero, who controls the tides and turns a cold shoulder to the world. On “Evil Friends,” he proclaims his superiority over many, and in “Hip Hop Kids,” he raises his voice only to claim he doesn’t give a shit. It’s not that Gourley is self-centered, but rather that this attitude is just as catchy as the guitar hooks.
This ironically self-centered, take-on-the-whole-world vigor is what much of Portugal. The Man’s weekend warrior audience is about, and Evil Friends is steeped and brewed in these ideas. “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” is the first single off Evil Friends, and its message is simple: “All I wanna do is live in ecstasy, I know what’s best for me.” Evil Friends is a testament to the fact that Portugal. The Man makes whatever sounds it wants, when it wants to.
Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends tracklist:
- “Plastic Soldiers”
- “Creep in a T-Shirt”
- “Evil Friends”
- “Modern Jesus”
- “Hip Hop Kids”
- “Atomic Man”
- “Sea of Air”
- “Holy Roller (Hallelujah)”
- “Someday Believers”
- “Purple Yellow Red and Blue”