There are few, if any, other single events in American pop music more venerated than the original Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. As a watershed moment in the cultural revolution of the 1970s, occurring in the last month of the last summer of the 60s, the festival was also a catalyst of innumerable personal revolutions in the years, and as it turns out generations, to follow.
It’s fitting that Alaska-based indie rockers Portugal. The Man’s eighth studio album, which shares its name with the legendary festival, signifies a notable shift from the band’s sonic past. On Woodstock, the festival turns out to be not only of historical interest, but a form of revolution for the band.
With a long trip to their home state and the discovery of lead singer John Gourney’s father’s ticket stub to the titular festival as impetus, the band have taken a decidedly poppier turn than on previous efforts. Woodstock features a diverse array of featured producers—Mike D of Beastie Boys, John Hill and Danger Mouse, along with longtime producer Casey Bates, who helped bring to life four of Portugal’s previous albums. What results is a lot more concentrated, and somewhat more focused than the seven albums preceding it.
The album’s better tracks—the raucous “Rich Friend,” for example—are signs of a successful formula, while some of the more fleeting entries on Woodstock, like the weirdly condescending “Easy Tiger,” don’t make as big of an impression. The album is also rife with some daring experiments, like the opener “Number One,” an extended riff on Richie Havens’ “Freedom” that careens to dazzling effect. And as a testament to the band’s great instincts for featured performers, the late-album standout “Mr. Lonely” features a stunning verse from Fatlip, formerly of The Pharcyde.
Portugal has been a hyper-prolific outfit for most of their career, having released their first seven albums in less than a decade, from 2006 to 2013. The four-year gap between Evil Friends and Woodstock is at least partially due to the scrapping of an entirely different album, but also due to the band’s own desire to take their time. Speaking to Earmilk, bassist Zach Corothers describes the arduous, yet rewarding process of sifting through dozens of songs in different arrangements before the band arrived at the right combination.
This prolonged period of writing, recording, and teasing invites the question of whether the final product is worth the wait. Ultimately, that’s up to the individual listener. For as good and tightly constructed as Woodstock is, it is a departure from much of the sonic territory that Portugal. The Man has traversed before. For some longtime fans, this might come off as jarring; others may find the experimentation and playfulness refreshing.
Nevertheless, there is still plenty of technical trickery, strange textures, and cryptic lyricism. Woodstock may be a new page for Portugal, but it is indisputably still a part of the same book. The band continue to expand and create rewarding experiences, and in the case of Woodstock, one worth repeating.