Since their formation in 2004, Portland, Oregon-based quintet Portugal. The Man have displayed a level of productivity to rival that of Guided By Voices at their most prolific peak. Evil Friends is their ninth studio album in eight years and it is, notably, their first for a major label (Atlantic). It also marks the arrival of a big-name producer, namely Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.
Even those who bemoan Danger Mouse’s evolution from the iconoclastic outsider responsible for 2004’s Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album to today’s producer-for-hire should at least credit Burton for his studio acumen. And Danger Mouse is, in principle, a good match for Portugal. The Man’s psychedelic pop. Indeed, Evil Friends’ luxurious, retro-futuristic production at times recalls Broken Bells, Danger Mouse’s 2010 collaboration with The Shins’ James Mercer.
Crucially, however, John Gourley – the frontman and main songwriting force behind Portugal. The Man – doesn’t have any of Mercer’s craft. Danger Mouse’s production provides plenty of spit and polish to these 12 tracks but at times it serves only to highlight the paucity of good creative ideas on display here.
Now that they’re bankrolled by Atlantic, Portugal. The Man might feel under pressure to deliver songs likely to gain radio airplay or – more likely – attract the attention of advertising agencies. Accordingly, Evil Friends is a peppy, bright and sparkly record – one that would probably sound fine burbling away in the background of a branch of Topshop.
But the songs on Evil Friends simply aren’t there. The catchiest moment occurs on Sea Of Air’s handclap-assisted “We got the whole world hangin’ there” refrain, but it feels like it would be best suited to being sung around an open fire at a vaguely sinister summer camp. Elsewhere, Danger Mouse’s production trickery is unable to prevent Holy Roller (Hallelujah) from sounding like a Jack Johnson cast-off. Someday Believers is weaker still: Danger Mouse’s arsenal of mellotrons and bells can’t rescue the song’s beiger-than-beige chorus: “We’re all just dreamers / someday believers … That may change but I don’t mind”.
That said, this kind of lyrical blandness is preferable to Gourley’s attempts at irony and humour, as evidenced on Purple Yellow Red And Blue and Creep In A T-Shirt. The former is fairly obviously about ecstasy and, in its switch from the optimism of “All I wanna do is live in ecstasy / I know what’s best for me” to the nihilism of “I just wanna be evil”, would appear to plot the trajectory of a drugs comedown. But, really, it displays about as much acuity on the subject of recreational drug use as D12’s purposefully bone-headed Purple Pills.
Creep In A T-Shirt is, however, just plain baffling. “In the world I’m livin’ / I’m just a creep in a T-shirt, jeans / I don’t fuckin’ care” goes the chorus, and it’s hard to tell whether Gourley is satirising apathetic attitudes by adopting the persona of an apathetic person, or attacking the contemptuous manner in which society regards him. Either way, it’s a stinker of a track.
Fortunately, Creep In A T-Shirt represents Evil Friends’ nadir: nothing else on the album is quite as irritating. But, really, when an album’s quality level ranges from intolerable to merely tolerable, it’s not a positive sign. Middling.