“Woodstock” is an alright album — It’s a 3/5, 6/10 album that raises up a tick or two if you jam out to pop-rock and drops a tick or three if you’re a Portugal. The Man (PTM) fan that values the uniqueness of their sound.
Strip the expectations away, and “Woodstock” is pretty cohesive, solidly produced, and bloated with hard hitting, catchy hooks. It is lyrically basic; it is structurally simple; it is thematically straightforward — out-and-out a pop product.
Moving over to pop doesn’t have to be an awful thing, and PTM does it decently enough. Songs like “Number One”, “Feel It Still”, and “Noise Pollution” have some fun hooks that will keep you humming during the day. Meanwhile, songs like “Easy Tiger” and “Mr. Lonely” do some interesting stuff (“Mr. Lonely:” voice modulation, strange sampling, wobbly guitar rhythms; Easy Tiger:” sounds layered up unusually dissonant, stronger electronic sound).
Run the album by the numbers and it does just fine. It plays safe with its listeners, worms some fun hooks into its listeners’ ears, then fades away after a few days. A song-by-song breakdown isn’t necessary to get the quick and dirty of this album because there is no complexity, no conceptual shift, no powerful lyrical point, no unique angle, no real point of interest that anyone needs to pick at.
The rough thing is, most of PTM’s previous albums weren’t just fine, weren’t average – they were really solid and pretty unique. The rough thing is that PTM’s last album “Evil Friends” was a much better shift to pop than “Woodstock” is. The rough thing is that this is not some imagined shift where the changes are hard to point out.
It is easy to wrangle what PTM lost — chose to throw away — with this album. First, they threw out interesting album art: “Woodstock” has a tame art-photo of a fancy car lighting ablaze on the front while most other PTM albums have droopy artwork made by frontman John Gourley to fit the theme; “Evil Friends” had a delicious mix of dark and light that was overall smooth; “In The Mountain In the Cloud” was full of airy blank space floating around heavy, rich purples; “American Ghetto” was an all black and white photo except for a big ice cream glob monster of green and blue color in the middle, standing underneath an American flag. Before you even open “Woodstock,” it is already a hell of a lot less interesting, less unique, less risky than previous PTM stuff.
Second, they discarded the powerful lyrics: “Woodstock” has straightforward lyrics mostly made to fit around good hooks while most past albums loaded songs up with depressing, stern messages that hard-contrasted the fun or soothing instrumentation. To be fair to PTM, they do keep some of the fun metaphoric language within songs, but without the contrast it all sounds much less meaningful. To really feel the difference in lyrics, compare “Feel It Still”‘s chorus to “People Say”‘s chorus (from their 2009 album “Satanic Satanist”).
“Feel It Still:”
Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now / I been feeling it since 1966, now/
Might be over now, but I feel it still/ Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now /
Let me kick it like it’s 1986, now / Might be over now, but I feel it still
All the soldiers say / “It’ll be alright / We may make it through the war
If we make it through the night” / All the people, they say /
“What a lovely day, yeah, we won the war / May have lost a million men, but we’ve got a million more”
“Feel it Still” says what it means, it just doesn’t mean a whole lot. It is a generic, wishy-washy personal statement that pulls on some old-school hippie vibes. “People Say” contrasts the soldier’s view of war with the distant population’s. “People Say” shows hollow optimism without commentary, inviting you to add your own. “People Say”‘s chorus subtly delivers a depressing message that contrasts the cheery instrumentation. Feel It Still makes a lot of noises, has a lot of filler words, stays purely positive, and just plain doesn’t say much at all. You could run this comparison tens of times over with songs across any other PTM album and Woodstock. Mix and match and the simplification of the lyrics is just as clear.
Third, they abandoned the varied song structures: most “Woodstock” songs have a very normal poppy structure that goes from bridge to chorus, traveling on loop from build-up to hook. Past albums had slow burn songs that didn’t hit the switch until the end, had songs that were content to stay sad and slow, had songs with totally different first and second halves. Past albums overall played with structure and how they built up to their ends much more than “Woodstock” does.
PTM stripped all of that away with “Woodstock”, to make way for a 3 star pop-rock album. If you love pop-rock and are just learning about PTM, that is perfectly fine news. This is another pop-rock album that can stand on its own merits and will give you a handful of new jams. If you are a long-time fan. then this is bad news. You might like this album, but it will likely underwhelm, especially since you were waiting 3 years for it. “Woodstock” may even be too disappointing to be worth listening to. That might sound snobbish, but understand that there was a soul and genuine aesthetic to all of PTM’s previous albums.
Take a scalpel and cut the body of “Woodstock” open, and you’ll find a decent heart and mind, but no soul at all.