Portugal. The Man has finally said it plainspoken; “We won’t sell you nothin’ you can’t use.” You best heed the word or leave the sermon because, as sure as the hell that awaits them, you’re not getting any apologies from frontman John Baldwin Gourley about his latest fix. The simple fact that Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) was at the helm of this project means that only one of the two standout facets of this album comes as a surprise. We knew Evil Friends would sound pristine, but none of us could have guessed that it would taste so sinister.
Being Danger Mouse must carry some serious baggage. When the title track first surfaced, fans took to the internet claiming that the producer infected the intro with Broken Bells-like production. Yet, it’s strange that this characteristically Danger Mouse sound is actually the vibraphone made famous on Pet Sounds. It’s no small feat when a producer’s style has more cultural relevance to some than The Beach Boys, but at the end of the day, the man’s been pigeonholed. So let’s step back and look at the facts. With co-writing credits on every song and Portugal’s admittance that Burton was basically a member of the band for six months, it’s impossible to deny his influence. Look at the contagious intro of “Atomic Man” and compare it to The Black Keys circa Brothers and we have similar witchcraft. But PTM has made clear that their label—even Danger Mouse—doesn’t control their sound.
Evil Friends kicks off with its most compositionally ambitious track. With three distinct movements and a surprising key change, “Plastic Soldiers” defies pop structure on an album full of (seemingly) straightforward songwriting. Strong examples of Burton and Gourley’s pop mastery come with “Creep in a T-Shirt” and “Modern Jesus,” but even in these, evil lurks in the cracks of the plinth.
In “Creep,” it seems that Gourley’s bullets are aimed at his own hypercritical fans. This band is self-proclaimed as ever-evolving, which poses problems for a certain camp—some old fans want Portugal recreating the wizardry of past works. But Gourley silences them so easily; “Just because I lost it doesn’t mean I want it back.”
Let’s get real here; Portugal. The Man lost most of their experimental and progressive signifiers a long time ago. They haven’t boldly showcased experimental musings in recorded works since It’s Complicated Being A Wizard, which was five or six albums ago (depending on whether you decide to count The Majestic Majesty). Now, their non-conformity is deviance. They’ve disguised a sermon— a relatively pessimistic one—as a pop album. It shouldn’t be surprising that this famously prolific band isn’t looking backward. Gourley tells the diehards-turned-haters, “Sorry, but I don’t recall a con.” So simmer down folks, no one’s been cheated. Still, Gourley’s sentiment is not so much a sorry as it is a fuck you. This is a crucial lyrical motif the album, and one that wonderfully alienates the choir from its church. The sermon screamed from the mountaintop declares that Gourley and his deacons “could never be your friend.” Devotees of the church of Portugal, you best keep a safe distance from the altar. The writing’s on the walls—it’s as explicit as the red boxed ‘E’ you’ll encounter with this album on iTunes—this band is done proving itself to you.
Gourley’s words have always been far from hollow, but in the past, meaning was often muddled by esotericism. This time around, the singer’s vision is far too succinct for the meaning to be imposed by listeners. His lines bite with newfound clarify and nihilism; “When you talk to God about suicide / When you never hear back, I hope you’re still alive.” This will come as unsettling to some– this is the same writer who has used Taoism as a guiding light for song lyrics. Although this change in tone works well, it forces the question: Why does the disillusionment come now? Portugal. The Man finally has notoriety—in the same year, they were summoned by Danger Mouse and handed the coveted sunset slot at Coachella—didn’t they face near-homelessness and play about 2000 shows in the past 6 years to get exactly here?
Maybe the view from atop of the mountain wasn’t worth the climb, but more likely, it was just too tough a road to arrive unscathed by the journey. Finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with album closer, “Smile,” but Gourley isn’t so naïve to imagine that hope springs eternal. Rather, he posits that ignorance is bliss. Who cares if hell awaits, we might as well smile while we still can.
On an album made rich by its dualities, herein lies the most interesting one. Portugal. The Man have crafted an album so radio-friendly that they’ll undoubtedly be accosted by longstanding fans, yet the lyrics are often too explicit or controversial for the airwaves. Evil Friends is bound to be the band’s most polarizing album for the diehards and their most accessible one to the newcomers. The great irony here is that the sonic and compositional approach will alienate the long-term investors, the very same fans that are best prepared to understand and appreciate it.