This review was supposed to come last week to coincide with this album’s release. The white vinyl was pre-ordered with same day delivery to enjoy first thing, even avoided the free streams to be able to experience the album in fidelity and comfort.
But then something awful happened.
The first listen was completely underwhelming. The instrumentation, vocals and production were top notch and outright beautiful, there’s no doubt of that. But it wasn’t jumping out and commanding listens and sing-alongs. Faced with the alarming possibility that one of this reviewer’s favorite modern bands, one that he’s been following for years now, put out an album that was sub par. What’s worse I would have to review it as thus. I tired not to panic. Attention was turned to other albums and reviews, but it would be thrown on whenever possible. Not all hope was lost. After all, some of the best albums are growers. It didn’t help either that expectations are riding high since this is their first major label release.
It was definitely possible that this reaction was the result of being spoiled. Portugal. The Man has put out an album almost every single year they’ve been a band. With so much material even the most ravenous fan must pay rapt attention to really absorb it all. What was clear from the start though, was that it is certainly nothing like their last album, the electronic and beat-driven American Ghetto. In The Mountain In The Cloud sounds like a marriage of the shimmering pop sensibilities of The Satanic Satanist and the layered and psychedelic vibe of Censored Colors.
Fortunately, throughout the week the album began unfolding in my ears in the most subtle and splendid way. Each listen would bring about a new favorite—single “Got It All” was a favorite form the start, as well as the hauntingly gorgeous closer “Sleep Forever,” and then another time “All Your Light (Times Like These)” stood head and shoulders above the other tracks. Then opener “So American” would get stuck in my head for hours. The album had found its way into my heart like a thief in the night.
As usual, guitarist/singer John Gorley writes words that are obtuse yet completely uplifting and sings them with passion. He again touches on favorite themes of his, discussing sun, sleep, and warmth, which being an Alaskan native it is obvious why these would be vital elements of existence. The epic video for “Sleep Forever” was filmed just miles from John’s house and after seeing the frigid unforgiving landscape you too will crave warmth and sun.
But it’s not John’s show alone, Zach’s keys and soundscapes are brilliant throughout, Ryan and Jason lay down a powerful yet skillfully restrained rhythm section, providing the essential backbone to this lush affair. Even when layered with strings and horns of guest players it is evident the level of craft being put into each of these songs by the core members. That is perhaps what makes this one a difficult first listen—it’s so incredibly dense in its production and sound. The ear sometimes needs time to unravel its mystery. “Floating” and “Head Is A Flame” definitely fall into this category, taking repeated listens to catch all the synths, sounds, backing vocals and guitar fills. Once all of the subtleties can be appreciated the listen is so much more rewarding.
However, there are some lingering negative feelings about the album. With past outings they have proved without a doubt that they are masters of the pop songwriting format. The experimentation has always been a factor but rather than being the focal point it is used as of late to just enhance the three minute pop formula instead of stretching themselves out and away from it. They are talented musicians and they shine brightest when they are stretching themselves to the limit, taking their sound to far-out places like the frosty and affecting environment of “Sleep Forever” or the swirling and infectious “Once Was One.” Had the album contained a few more adventurous numbers like the ones described it could have easily been a Psychedelic Rock classic for the 21st century. Instead it is merely a great album with some truly inspired moments of musical soul nourishment.
If this is your first time with Portugal. The Man, then welcome! You are in for a wonderful treat from a band that is one of the most consistently brilliant and engaging bands this decade has seen. They excel at riding the line between effective pop songwriting and creatively unique worlds of sound. If you’re a fan and returning, then rest assured it is a worthy addition to their already impressive catalog. Whichever one you may be, if In The Mountain In The Cloud doesn’t wow you on first listen, give it another chance. And another. With each new listen it will bloom fuller and brighter like a flower in springtime. Who knows, it may just sneak into your heart as well.
Written by Jarad MatulaPortugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Cloud by ATL REC