When lead singer and guitarist John Gourley found his father’s original Woodstock ticket, the concept of Portugal. The Man’s latest release was born. Musically, the opening track is the only one that truly channels the 60s: it’s a cover of ‘Number One’, first performed by Richie Havens at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The rest of the album not only doesn’t have much to do with 60s rock, but it also loses touch with the style and atmosphere of PTM’s previous psychedelia-inspired material. Most of ‘Woodstock’ really is contemporary pop music looking for a connection with 60s youth, drawing parallels between their state of mind and the challenges faced by millennials today.
This is yet another example of depth being sacrificed for success in today’s art. There’s only a handful of riffs and keyboard melodies echoing the distinctly psychedelic atmosphere of PTM’s previous 2013 release Evil Friends and The Satanic Satanist from 2009. It’s hard to imagine that the group’s musical tastes have changed so suddenly – a more feasible explanation would be that they were told what had to be done in order to win over bigger crowds. The change in sound was facilitated by Beastie Boys’ Mike D, who produced the album.
Lyrically, Woodstock delivers on its aim to establish a connection between young people’s lives 50 years ago and nowadays, while still being straightforward and easy enough to understand for a pop audience. The chorus of ‘Feel It Still’, the incredibly catchy first single from the album, goes: “I’m a rebel just for kicks, now / I’ve been feeling it since 1966, now / Might be over now, but I feel it still”, referring to the perpetual urge for rebellion that every generation experiences in one way or another. ‘So Young’ is a commentary on the feeling of being lost and unsure what one is capable of (“So young, loaded gun / Oblivious to what the trigger does”), while believing that it’s impossible to ever run out of time (“We’re gonna live forever”).
‘Rich Friends’ might be the only track that truly stands out: it’s guaranteed to get stuck in your head after the first listen, and it’s also the only song that features some memorable percussion and somewhat prominent guitar riffs. The lyrics carries a lot of sarcasm while highlighting the injustice of uneven wealth distribution. ‘Noise Pollution’ is packed with even more instances of social criticism, with lines such as “Let’s make low resolutions / Let’s reverse evolution / Let’s leave behind this dry land / Crawl back to the ocean”. However, it seems as if they tried to pack too much into this one song, mixing hip-hop samples with elements of electronica and indie rock, with guest vocalist Mary Elizabeth Winstead singing her lines in French for no apparent reason.
Son Little, A$AP Rocky, Fat Lip and Zoe Manville also appear as guests on Woodstock, but it’s unclear whether their contributions improve the overall result. Ultimately, this release is likely to disappoint long-time PTM fans who’ve been awaiting it for four years, expecting the band to build on their previous material. On the other hand, it has the potential to earn the Alaska natives a more mainstream success (‘Feel It Still’ has peaked at number 1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart and number 2 on the Alternative Songs chart). It’s also worth pointing out that Gourley’s high-pitched vocals work very well with this new pop sound. But it still seems that, ironically, while conveying a theme of youthful identity crisis, the group themselves are having a crisis of this kind.