You should know two things about Portugal. The Man’s newest album: (1) It further cements their place as the greatest thing to ever come out of Wasilla, Alaska, and (2) it proves psychedelic music has no business on a major label in the era of shitty speakers.
Although the White Witch of Wasilla’s career may be foundering lately, Portugal. The Man’s is not. In the Mountain in the Cloud is the band’s seventh album and first under Atlantic Records. One’s first listen reveals a band at the top of its game: the songs are catchy, complex, and thick. Six years of record-making has primed the band for bigger-sounding things, and the major label support pays audible dividends in the form of higher fidelity, horn sections, liberal use of strings, and (am I hearing this right?) steel drums. Overall, In the Mountain continues the psych-pop experiments of 2010’s American Ghetto, but even moreso.
It’s certainly encouraging for the state of neo-psychedelic music that a band like Portugal. The Man receives the blessing of a label this large. Make no mistake, they’re conspicuous on the Atlantic roster alongside the likes of Phil Collins and Matchbox Twenty. But that’s also precisely why it’s such a shame that John Hill’s production buries much of what made the band’s music stand out.
Hill, whose production credits include radio-friendly personalities like Santigold, M.I.A., and Shakira, runs his heavy hand all over the album, resulting in an overcompressed, monotonously loud sound that glosses over any of the emotional nuance in the album’s highs and lows. And it doesn’t help that In the Mountain is one of the band’s most straightforward releases to date, consisting mostly of mid-tempo rockers with bombastic choruses (“So American” and “Got It All” are highlights). Their earlier albums employed bluesy stylings and offbeat wordplay; this time around, in dutiful psychedelic style, they name-check Vietnam in the first song.
To be fair, there are bright spots. “All your Life” spins off into some seriously fucked-up territory around the third minute. The woozy, Genesis-on-benzos groove of “You Carried Us” combines with a ghost choir to create one of the tensest textures on the album, largely because it’s one of the most restrained. Which brings us to my main gripe with the album: The lack of mystery in these songs means they’re too often just trading in dumb rock maximalism.
Obscurism is definitely part of the psychedelic aesthetic, whether it’s a little gentle flange on a guitar or a musical instrument dug up from some foreign culture. But it’s more than a music built on creating weird sounds. The lyrics often have a mantra-like quality too, the overall effect of unusual timbres and pseudo-spiritual lyrics being a bit like a medium channeling some unseen force — at least, to the far out.
But the backing track is no séance and singer John Gourley’s is no medium, either. The lyrics, while they cry out to be blasted from a festival stage, are frequently a mess of platitudes: “We’ve got it all/ Till the revolution comes.” And the guitar, while sometimes sounding enticingly mangled, is more Trey Anastasio than Stacy Sutherland, another aspect of In the Mountain that feels kind of lazy.
With a bevy of somewhat indistinguishable tunes, a production aesthetic that keeps everything front, center, and earsplitting is a problem. Knowing full well that I’m entering some dangerously speculative territory, I don’t think it’s totally a coincidence that the band’s first release on a major coincides with the new sound. The rest of the Atlantic roster contains artists whose music is listened to in that weird noosphere of desktop speakers and earbuds. Don’t believe for a second that record labels haven’t adjusted their production (marketing?) strategies in line with lower-fidelity listening habits.
So ultimately the most interesting question brought up by In the Mountain in the Cloud is unintentional, but it still bears considering: Do the aesthetic sensibilities of corporate marketing — needing to reach a wide, earbudded audience — conflict with those of the music being marketed? To that I don’t have an answer, but there’s not much of this album I’m going to remember.