Portugal, The Man's seventh album 'Evil Friends' seems to be the moment where the band has struck a perfect balance between their pop and psychedelic tendencies. Much has changed since their major label debut in 2011; two band members have been replaced and they've called in a high profile producer. The resulting record is perhaps their most concise to date, and features a bona-fide anthem in the form of 'Creep In A T-Shirt'.
Danger Mouse's contribution as producer really can't be underestimated either. His previous work with artists like The Black Keys informs the approach he takes here. Everything is crisp, allowing guitars and drums to sit comfortably around John Gourley's falsetto vocals without drowning them out. It sounds less confused than some of the band's previous work. Primarily because the more quirky flourishes are subtly incorporated into the mix, rather than feeling shoehorned in. A perfect example is 'Holy Roller (Hallelujah)'. There are a huge number of different things going on in the track, but Danger Mouse chooses to concentrate on the call and response gospel vocals and brass rather than the weird vocal sample that's buried in the mix. Yet when the sample does come to the fore to bookend the song, it seems perfectly natural for it to be there.
Gourley seems to have chosen to make 'Evil Friends' a more intimate record as well. While he's still trying to tackle big issues like religion and faith ('Modern Jesus', and the aforementioned 'Holy Roller (Hallelujah)'), the character sketches he creates feel less grandiose than on previous records. Gourley weaves a sinister thread between all of those characters to make them all evil friends in their own unique way. Even when he does discuss issues like war (for example in the protest song 'Waves' or the multiple mentions of "plastic soldiers".), the perspective he takes to tackle soldiers not coming home from the front line feels personal. Perhaps that's why 'Creep In A T-Shirt' is so memorable; the protagonist is, as the title suggests, somewhat unlikeable. But the alienation he displays plays to a sense of dissatisfaction with modern society that's easy to identify with.
Ultimately, though, the biggest asset to 'Evil Friends' is the pop sensibility that shines through. Catchy guitar and piano hooks are coupled with some pretty impressive percussion work (no doubt helped by Danger Mouse's expertise behind the desk). While 'Hip Hop Kids' may try to place Portugal, The Man outside of fashionable pop culture ("Yeah, yeah the punks are done. F*** those rock and rollers. All the hip-hop kids think we give a s*** well we don't, we don't, we don't.), musically it's a classic piece of garage rock.
For some, Portugal, The Man's music may have become more commercial and accessible, but that's by no means a bad thing. They retain enough of their psychedelic roots, to legitimately show that they've refined rather than abandoned their sound. Gourley's still able to tackle some pretty hefty subjects, but with a confidence that hasn't been immediately obvious in the past. 'Evil Friends' may be a dark and sinister record, but it's also a lot of fun at the same time. That makes it an unexpected and welcome surprise in my book.
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