Music

Portugal. The Man Explore New Ground with an Unfocused Tinge On “Woodstock”

It’s been nearly four years since Portugal. The Man released its last studio album. After working on an entire double album titled “Gloomin + Doomin,” the more than 40 songs were subsequently scrapped and replaced by a newly recorded album.

John Baldwin Gourley, the band’s lead guitarist, singer and songwriter, was desperate for a new theme to inspire an album. When his father showed the band members a ticket stub from the famous 1969 Woodstock music festival, Gourley realized that almost five decades later, music still had the same mission — to comment on political and social angst, frustration and unease. With a change of heart and creative direction, Portugal. The Man abandoned “Gloomin + Doomin” to create “Woodstock.”

Although the album’s sounds and themes touch on various areas and influences, “Woodstock” remains a delightful fusion of alternative rock, indie-rock and pop-rock that’s made up of upbeat, commercial singles, poppy techno sounds and vintage samples. Portugal. The Man’s songwriting oozes cynicism, wit and social commentary.

In consideration of their progression over the years, a departure from their previous sound was likely. The band’s core, Gourley, along with Zachary Scott Carothers (bass/vocals), recruited past collaborators including John Hill, Casey Bates and Danger Mouse. Gourley and Carothers also brought in new high-profile producers and musicians to help work on the album, including Mike D from the Beastie Boys.

“Number One,” the first track on “Woodstock,” bears the most resemblance to the essence of the legendary festival. The song opens with a sample of Richie Havens’ 1969 performance of “Freedom” from the original Woodstock. The track, which also features Son Little, is a funky, alternative spin on the song with the famous lyrics “sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

The versatility on “Woodstock” shines on the second track, “Easy Tiger,” which is driven by a bold and synthy drum beat accompanied with Kyle O’Quin’s keyboard harmonies.

But while the band is skillful in exploring new sonic territory, the juxtaposition between the eclectic sounds often leaves the flow between songs confusing. Each song has a distinct sound palette that’s engaging, but the songs become cluttered when put together.

The album’s first single, “Feel It Still,” is an ultra catchy summer anthem and the best homage to the band’s affinity for throwback music.  “Feel It Still” delivers the message that the American public is still uneasy. The song, produced by Mike D, takes on a rattling funky sound accompanied by horns and a bopping bass line. With a hook that shouts, “I’m a rebel just for kicks now,” the band expresses the rebellion that comes along with political upheaval. The memorable nature of “Feel It Still” nearly serves as a clear omen to the band’s square aim at the 21st century mainstream music scene.

One track further down in the tracklist on “Woodstock” is also worth mentioning. “So Young,” one of the album’s moodier songs, is driven by heavy percussion and accompanied by melancholy lyrics, “I don’t need to make amends” and “I just want to find a friend, I don’t need another lover” that puts listeners through an emotional roller-coaster.

The band’s lyrics are part of what has given them such a faithful following over the years. While often dark, clever and critical of current political and social times, the band still finds ways to make the music relatable. Portugal. The Man got everything off their chest on “Woodstock,” yet, the album falls short in its precision. Their social and political commentary is present in each song, but the thoughts are scatter-brained.

Although the music is adventurous, “Woodstock” doesn’t flow smoothly. Each song acts as a well-painted canvas, yet the art gallery is unorganized and the paintings clash when hung next to each other. Despite this uneasy playthrough quality, “Woodstock” is a solid stepping stone for Portugal. The Man — just an unfocused one.

Most of these tracks are great as singles, especially commercially, yet the lack of deep cuts for the fans to savor leaves something genuine lost in translation. The polished production from legends and new collaborators like Danger Mouse and Mike D is welcome, but the result is a chaotic mix of songs that don’t sound like a cohesive record.

Despite lacking a well thought out narrative, “Woodstock” is a leap of faith for Portugal. The Man. Each band member shows promise as they further develop and extend their style.

You can listen to the album on Spotify and Apple Music below: