Last month I made my list of the best albums of 2011 up to that point. In The Mountain In The Cloud came out just a short time afterward, and everyone on my list should feel lucky they didn’t get it out sooner. I don’t know if it would have knocked any of the top 3 out of their spots, but it’s certainly a contender for one of their places. This album officially ends my skepticism that the second half of the year couldn’t possibly be as good as the first.
Portugal. The Man was here in Chicago over Lollapalooza weekend, but I didn’t get a chance to see them at Double Door (where their van and all their equipment was stolen-assholes) for their aftershow. At that point I had only skimmed over the record, knowing that it sounded good, but not going any further than that. Now, having listened to their record ten or eleven times this week, I can say that missing their show is one of the great disappointments of the year. Luckily they’ll be back in October at Metro, and I fully plan on being in attendance (I’ll be the guy in the yellow Wilco shirt-also known as “the shirt I end up wearing every time I go to Metro”).
My knowledge of Portugal. The Man is shoddy at best. I was recommended their last album by a friend whose musical taste I trust, but for whatever reason it fell from my mind. I’ve heard it in bits and pieces, but I still haven’t heard it in it’s entirety. After listening to this new album, I can’t wait to go back and listen to their catalog since 2006.
When the first song, “So American” came on, I was hit by a couple of thoughts immediately. One, this is exactly what an album of mid-70’s Bowie covers would sound like if Scissor Sisters put one out. Two, I never thought anything so beautiful could come out of Wasila, Alaska. That second thought does highlight the fact that I knew they were from Alaska, so I wasn’t completely in the dark. What I didn’t know was how good these guys are.
A more accurate comparison, if I may be so bold as to think that I’m right about this, would be to call the band a more straight-forward version of Islands. The eleven tracks here are a bit more tightly constructed than anything Islands has done, but I think the instrumentation is similar, and John Gourley’s soaring highs aren’t all that different from Nick Diamonds’. The guitar work by Gourley is also superb. He gets a couple really good solos in here, playing in a genre that sometimes shuns them.
It’s rare to find an album where every song is better than the one before it. Even on really good albums, there’s often one or two tracks that could be eliminated. On In The Mountain In The Cloud, there are no cutouts. Every song is absolutely essential. Forced to pick one that stands out above the rest, I would go with “Sleep Forever,” which may be the best six minutes eighteen seconds you spend all year. Seriously, it’s song of the year for me right now. It’s unbelievably simple, but deep and gorgeous and amazing. I guarantee when they play it live, someone cries. Not me, but someone in the crowd will be in tears. Here are some lyrics, the first part from the opening stanza, and the second from the final:
As I finally meet my end
I won’t be scared, I won’t defend
The things I’ve done
I don’t need him like you do
I don’t fear him like you do
‘Cause we are all children
Yeah, we are all man
It may not be much
But we do what we can
Don’t need no preacher
To make us believe
That everything’s perfectly
Fucked up like me
This record throws cynicism out the window and succeeds despite it’s optimism. There aren’t a lot of bands out there today that can sing about life and death and love with such gumption and sincerity. If you find yourself in need of a lush, lyrically compelling and all-around swell-sounding record, look no further than In The Mountain In The Cloud.
Here is a short list of bands that I think would be comparable to Portugal. The Man. If you like any of these bands, please check out In The Mountain In The Cloud: Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Islands, David Bowie, Dr. Dog, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and The Beach Boys.