Despite titling their eighth album after an iconic moment in late-1960s counterculture, Portugal. The Man aims squarely at the 21st-century mainstream with Woodstock. With less emphasis on psychedelically tinged guitar rock and an increased focus on simple, accessible dance beats and electronic production, the band’s latest album is in keeping with core members John Gourley and Zach Carothers’s penchant for exploring different sonic terrain with each new effort, but this is the first time they’ve fully abandoned their indie roots in favor of pure pop.
Inspired by the discovery of his father’s ticket stub from the legendary 1969 music festival, lead singer Gourley has said that he wanted to make Woodstock an album that, like the music of the late ’60s, comments on societal and political unease. Indeed, as they have throughout their career, the Portland-based group touches on such distresses, but they do so in such a tangential and lighthearted way that it leaves the various shout-outs to protestors, political activism, and “the resistance” ultimately feeling less like a reflection of the zeitgeist and more like pounding on a fad.
“Number One” opens the album with an extended sample of “Freedom” by the late Richie Havens, a veteran of Woodstock, but the song’s call for perseverance in the face of adversity gets muddled as Gourley repeatedly sings of past suffering somehow bringing “such sweet memories.” The quasi-political tone continues in “Rich Friends” with mention of being “a one-man army” that will “campaign for anarchy,” but such militant sentiments are undermined by incongruous, party-anthem lyrics about “crashin’ on chardonnay and Adderall.” The band addresses half-hearted activism by adding a healthy dose of sarcasm to lead single “Feel It Still,” as Gourley’s delivery of lines like “I’m a rebel just for kicks now/I’ve been feeling it since 1966 now” speaks to both the tendency in our meme-and-hashtag-obsessed culture to become drawn to fashionable causes despite personal ambivalence and the frequent exaggeration of commitment to said causes.
Portugal. The Man has often paired political or religious references with contemporary vernacular, such as not wanting to “roll with” a “modern Jesus” on 2013’s Evil Friends, but here they too often stray from clever wordplay and slip into platitudes and clichés. A girl has “eyes like wishing wells” on “Live in the Moment,” a bland pop track that strips away the band’s former psych-rock sensibilities for a dimensionless, generic beat and the repeated trite affirmation of its title. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to appeal to a broader audience, but by wrapping itself in the trappings of counterculture and modern social activism with no intention to fully explore these themes, Woodstock feels as disingenuous as it does unoriginal. Instead of putting their own offbeat stamp on danceable pop music, Portugal. The Man abandons their once-unique sound and retreats into imitation.