Portugal. The Man

In the Mountain in the Cloud

Rating: 3.6/5.0

Label: Atlantic

Any band that builds their music around obvious retro styles runs the risk of creating music that’s swamped by its own indulgent nostalgia. The layers of familiar and bygone sounds start to lose some of their organic appeal, turning into mannered contrivance instead of the sincere expression of affection for what’s come before. The line between creative appropriation and hollow tribute is so fine that it’s practically invisible, and it’s a rare band that can stay fully on the more rewarding side of that. Backed by a major label for the first time and presumably bolstered by the extra studio time that the major music corporation can afford them, Portugal. The Man indulges their retro leanings more clearly than ever before on their sixth full-length release, In the Mountain of the Cloud. They don’t fully avoid the harm than can come from looking backward, but they do emerge with an album that is a smartly sure-footed outing.

Long known for merging psychedelic rock’s tight, trippy spins with spare indie rock earnestness, the band has also been prone to incorporating sparkler rains of glam rock. I’m not referring to the sort of slicked up guitar barrages employed by the likes of the New York Dolls and Sweet, but the more luxurious cool jetstream flow of Roxy Music. This is the stuff that Todd Haynes soaked his movie Velvet Goldmine in like a misty bubble bath. That side of Portugal. The Man shows up immediately on the opening track, “So American,” which floats along sweetly as lead vocalist John Gourley musters up his best effervescent falsetto to sing, “If pain was a color to paint on you,/ Your heart would be the color blue.” The song has a fulsome yearning to it that sets the tone nicely for what follows. 

Sonically, In the Mountain of the Cloud is an album in love with its own ache. Many of the songs have a questing quality, a sense that the arrangements are bending against the sheen that envelops them. It’s a nice dynamic, a sort of rubbery sleekness. It manifests in the song “Senseless” as a fierce buzz, like something off an especially agitated Xiu Xiu record, building bigger and bigger until it turns into a thundering symphonic distortion. Then “Head is a Flame (Cool With It)” melds tender Cat Stevens underpinnings with the sort of shimmering soul Beck practiced around the time of Midnite Vultures. These aren’t drastic left turns, but they do veer from the expected path just enough to keep the music interesting.

The craftsmanship is fairly impressive across the album. “Once Was One” starts with a nice interplay of guitar lines before building to a velvety crush of anthemic psych pop with an addictive chorus of “We all, we all, we all turn on.” The song was clearly honed into shape, but it doesn’t feel overworked. In fact, it has some of that gratifying studio polish combined with true inventiveness that was once proudly deemed “Beatlesque.” If that billowy lushness sometimes makes the songs seem like couch cushions fluffed so fully that it’s hard to discern the seam between them, it’s a small shortcoming in exchange for the resplendent benefit to the music.

The album fittingly culminates in the brightly epic “Sleep Forever,” which surveys the pains of the world and comes away with a vagabond weariness: “‘Cause we are all rebels/ Never do what we’re told/ We may not grow money/ But man we grow old.” Gourley’s guitar solo swirls around, playing against crashing wave drums, pulsing violins and ethereal backing vocals. It’s a band giving it their all, truly making the rhythms of the past sound vital and new in the process.

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