Spinning heads and psychedelic art greeted anyone who visited Portugal. The Man’s Tumblr-exclusive album stream. The band has always been known for their beautiful, mind-expanding art but this was taking it to a new interactive level. Upon the first listen all the way through, I took to Facebook immediately like an over-sharing teenage girl, posting a link to the Tumblr, telling everyone the new album, ‘Evil Friends’ was so good that I wanted to both laugh and cry at the same time. After 20 or so listens it can be confirmed that this wasn’t just new album giddiness. This album is just as fantastic as my initial squeal of excitement would have you believe.
It’s a relief too, since there were huge expectations going into this album. The band’s lineup has changed since the last album, with a new keyboardist, supporting guitarist and drummer filling out the roster. Wunderkind Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, produced this album. His magic touch had helped The Black Keys and others reach new levels of songwriting and commercial appeal. Would this taint their magic somehow or elevate them to new heights?
More than anything else, there was my own expectations: you know firsthand how much of a grower their last album, ‘In The Mountain In The Cloud’ was. It turned out to be a very satisfying experience, but it felt like a greatest hits culmination of their work up to that point instead of a new sound or direction—in other words, a sort of treading water. Each previous album saw the band on an exciting new adventure, but this wasn’t as new and different; therefore, expectations to go in a new or different direction this time were incredibly high. Fortunately they managed to combine all the great things about Portugal. The Man with the signature sounds and production values of Danger Mouse to create one of the most cohesive records of their career.
Portugal. The Man’s “Creep in a T-Shirt”
‘Evil Friends’ is a fascinating dichotomy: light vs. dark, levity vs. somber seriousness, acoustic vs. electronics. At times the band has its tongue planted more firmly in its cheek than ever before lyrically, while other times it’s more open and honest than previous records. Reoccurring themes of questioning faith and the ravages of war permeate the lyrics. “Plastic Soldiers” opens the album on a morose Broken Bells note, with a delicious blend of acoustic guitars and beats. Despite this slow start, the first half of the album contains more of the fun songs.
“Creep In A T-Shirt” may sound full of resignation, but there’s something about the way lead singer John Gorley says, “I’m just a creep in a t-shirt and jeans I don’t fuckin’ care,” that brings a smile to your face and just makes him feel more human and relatable than past lyrics. It also contains one of my favorite lyrics of the year so far, “just because I lost it doesn’t mean I want it back,” which could be applied to any number of situations with poignancy. This song exemplifies the gorgeous piano sounds present throughout the album, as well as the infectious vocal harmonies peppered throughout each song to add an extra layer of catchiness. It also briefly visits the bridge from the song “Evil Friends,” making it less a moment in a song than a motif that runs throughout the album.
Portugal. The Man’s “Atomic Man”
The title track, “Evil Friends” was the first single from the album and was a little shocking at first. It starts off sad and serene before launching into a raucous jam with Gorley spitting out the words with a sneer that would make Liam Gallagher proud. It’s fun, insanely catchy and already one of my favorite summer jams…not to mention what weird fun the video is.
Struggling with the ideas of faith and religion has always been a topic for this band, but they lay it out plainly on “Modern Jesus” in a fun and heartfelt song where they explain, “we don’t need to modern Jesus to roll with us, the only rule we need is never giving up.” Portugal have always been vocal about their love for Wu Tang Clan and all hip hop so it’s not surprising they finally released a track called “Hip Hop Kids,” whether intentionally ironic or not is the most hard rocking song on the album. “Atomic Man” is where the album takes a more serious turn as we’re told, “after you hell should be easy,” over a steady beat and acoustic strumming. It too already has a graphically arresting music video that’s worth checking out.
“Sea of Air” is tender and acoustic, reminiscent of a John Lennon solo track with a blast of Sgt. Pepper horns in the middle to add a touch of grandiosity. In “Waves” Gorley compares the difficulties of soldiers either returning from war or never returning at all to waves that go unnoticed in a vast ocean; it’s a heartbreaking metaphor that makes it obvious the band has friends in the armed services they worry about. It’s probably the least catchy song in the batch, but it’s also arguably the most serious, so that’s alright.
Combine the fun and catchiness of a Schoolhouse Rocks song with the best songs of Portugal. The Man and you get an idea of the awesomeness of “Holy Roller.” By this point you probably feel like you’re reading a broken record telling you this song too is catchy because yes, almost every single song on the album is incredibly memorable and has the potential to be stuck in your brain for days. “Someday Believers” also questions the ideas of religion and is a solid mid-tempo number, but possibly the only song that hasn’t completely grabbed me yet, despite the fantastic piano work.
The last two songs exemplify the sharp yet sublime contrasts of this album. “Purple Yellow Red and Blue,” is the most party-worthy jam the band has created yet as he tells us he wants to be a “movie star or on TV,” when he grows up and in the bridge chants that he, “just wants to be evil,” despite spending several songs telling us he’s not evil. True story, when yours truly put this song on at a party recently people danced just as hard to it as the hip hop and pop tracks it got sandwiched between! It may have an upbeat title, but “Smile,” ends the album on a pensive note as gently plucked guitar arpeggios fill your ears and Gorley tells you he doesn’t want to hear about the war, he just wants to smile. It sounds like a plea or a prayer for the future, feeling well aware of his struggles with life and death and the battle between good and evil inside all of us.
It’s an internal struggle we all deal with at some point in our lives, if not every waking moment. The lyrics on this album show a sense of fun and seriousness side-by-side just the way events are in life, which makes this album feel so…excuse the overused word, but…real. Combine that realness with a talented band and master craftsman like Danger Mouse and what you get is one of the best albums of the year from one of the most exciting modern bands making music today.
Written By Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Senior Writer