Sound — 8
Building themselves up as indie darlings with a prolific streak of albums in the latter half of the previous decade, Portugal. The Man's tireless work paid off soon after the release of their fifth album, 2010's "American Ghetto," where they signed with Atlantic Records. That major label break, as an effect, has taken the indie rock project to a new level of sonic elaboration. Working with reputable producer John Hill for their sixth album, 2011's "In the Mountain in the Cloud" showed the band getting a better grasp on the "Ziggy Stardust"-esque glam rock aspirations they've had for quite some time, despite being a notably difficult period of creativity (with frontman John Gourley threatening to quit). After that, Portugal. The Man went on to work with the equally venerable Danger Mouse for their seventh album, 2013's "Evil Friends," which stepped away from the retro rock influence of their previous album and more toward a contemporary indie rock/art rock sound.
Originally planning to make their next album with Mike D of Beastie Boys, titled "Gloomin + Doomin," the album was eventually scrapped after years of work, but promptly followed with a new vision for album number eight, entitled "Woodstock." On paper, the album proves to be the most heterogeneous for Portugal. The Man, featuring production jobs from Hill and Danger Mouse, as well as repurposing material from the derelict "Gloomin + Doomin."
That observation may lead one to believe that "Woodstock" is a scatterbrained offering, but it turns out to be quite cohesive, aiming to push the band's sound into different territory. Setting their sights on a sound that's mainly driven by synthesizers, Zachary Carothers's bass grooves and Gourley's androgynously high vocal range (which also run a gamut of production effects), much of the album takes on a dance-inducing nu funk style, heard in "Easy Tiger," "Rich Friends," and the trippy "Mr. Lonely." That sense of funk/soul exudes even stronger with apropos throwbacks to the genre's heyday, like the retro horn swells and harmonies used in "Feel It Still," and "Number One" building itself around samples of Richie Havens's "Freedom" (the breakout song Havens improvised during his set at Woodstock), though it holds its own just fine in a more contemporary fashion, like in the feel-good "Tidal Wave."
In this stylistic switch, "Woodstock" is far less rock-oriented than Portugal. The Man's previous albums, though it doesn't completely abandon the band’s rock instrumentation. The prominence of Gourley's acoustic guitar in "Keep On" is similar to songs in the previous "Evil Friends," the classic rock guitar solo that rips into the indie rock ballad "So Young" appeals to the "In the Mountain in the Cloud" mentality, and the electronic rock style heard in "Live In The Moment" calls back to the band's pre-Atlantic days. Lacing in these familiar parts with the overarching nu funk feel helps unite the old with the new, but if there's any moment that reaches too far, it's the ending "Noise Pollution (Version A, Vocal Up Mix 1.3)." Ostensibly originating from the "Gloomin + Doomin" sessions, its fussy synth arrangements, whiplashing guest vocals, and meta song title to cheekily acknowledge its messiness is more trouble than it's worth.
Lyrics — 6
One of the reasons Gourley wanted to build a new album different from the unreleased "Gloomin + Doomin" was a response to the current state of politics in America, as many other musicians have already shown this year. With "Woodstock" obviously signaling to a pivotal moment for grassroots social movement in America generations ago, Gourley's lyrics address how the time from then to now has resulted in a dulling of that grassroots passion ("All the trails we blazed / Have long since been paved / Leading to the modern age" in "Number One"), and more importantly, modernity rendering that passion into a chintzy, sensationalized product ("Live leak the revolution / Go stream it now on demand" in "Noise Pollution"). That perspective of today's sense of political dissent also feels a bit too cynical at other points, offering little else than tongue-in-cheek quips ("Let me be your one-man army / I'll campaign for anarchy" in "Rich Friends"; "We could fight a war for peace (Ooh woo, I'm a rebel just for kicks now)" in "Feel It Still"), and on the other hand, Gourley's own appeals for positive change feel just as shallowly sound-bitey as what he pokes fun at ("Love is my battle cry / It's never wrong / How I stay so strong / I'll fight all my life" in "So Young"). In an era where many musicians are making music inspired by the precarious state of politics in their country and beyond, "Woodstock" doesn't sink to the bottom, but it doesn't rise to the top.
Overall Impression — 8
As the result of the longest creation period for a Portugal. The Man album, "Woodstock" does an impressive job moving things forward for the band's catalog. The choice for a more varied songwriting and production process is a calculated risk, but it's one that pays off well, and handles the responsibility of merging new sonic initiatives with the band's past sounds quite nicely. While the album won't stand out for its politically-conscious element, given how many other politically-conscious albums have already come out this year and how many more will come in the future, the hodgepodge sound continuing the eclectic nature of Portugal. The Man is what makes "Woodstock" succeed with flying colors.