Portugal. The Man have never seemed like the type of band who would need or want to make the jump to a major label; they’ve already got a strong fanbase, their past music generally sits well within rock and punk circles, and they’ve even been relatively accepting of the early leaks of their albums – something major labels have no tolerance for. But, for this, their sixth album In The Mountain In The Cloud, the Alaskans have made the move to Atlantic Records. Is it because they are writing more accessible music than ever? Is it because they want to be bigger than ever? Is it because their music doesn’t really fit within the rock and punk scene anymore? Judging from the music on In The Mountain In The Cloud, it is all of these things.
The album opens with “So American,” which sets the tone for the rest of the album. Built around an acoustic guitar laid on top of a bed of strings, the song floats by until reaching the chorus where the band somehow manage to pack three hooks together and make it work. This is very much Portugal. The Man’s modus operandi for the album – and unless you’re a joyless music fan, or perhaps someone yearning for the Portugal of old, you’d be lying if you said it didn’t work. The almost-constant presence of strings embellishing the tracks raises them to an admirable level of grandeur, and where there aren’t strings there’s often something else of interest: a piano put higher in the mix, some African drums, splashes of organ, a horn part, or simply an interesting drum effect. Sometimes it seems Portugal. The Man have gone a little too far with their sonic experiments, such as the oddly grating vocal effect used on “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujah),” but usually there’s some other musical hook to offset this. All of this undulating, pulsating rock is iced with John Gourley’s vocals. And even if his high-pitched crooning can become grating at times, you can’t deny that the man has a knack for melody. Here he creates several vocal hooks with or without words; and on the choruses of all of these songs it’s easy to identify the theater-sized (or bigger) ambitions.
The interesting thing about In The Mountain In The Cloud though, is the lyrical themes and their place within the music. All of these songs have a chorus that you can sing along to, and it sounds happy, even triumphant. But when you actually sit back and think about the lyrics they paint the picture of a man who is unsure of himself (“Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”), somewhat lost in the world (“Senseless”) or contemplating the end (“Sleep Forever”). And although sometimes the lyrics can be a little too much (“Once Was One”), it might not even matter. This album is so possessed with melodies that it’s possible to go through it without giving the lyrics a second thought, simply humming or singing along to the choruses, and you’ll have a blast while doing so.
This cross-eyed attribute of the album will suit most people: those who want to focus on the album and look closely will find more depths within the lyrics, those who choose to remain oblivious and take the album at face value can find plenty to enjoy in that way too. Since Incubus’ comeback turned out to be a flop, there is certainly a large gap for another rock band to take up the mantle of the act who successfully straddles the artistic and commercial crowds, and with In The Mountain In The Cloud, Portugal. The Man have placed themselves right in it.