“ … wandering stars for whom is reversed the blackness of darkness forever” – Jude 1:13.
Wandering Star from Portishead’s Mercury Music Prize winning album Dummy (1994) takes the ideas of Jude 1:13, in order to paint a picture of intense suffering, as is singer Beth Gibbons’ specialism. Coupled with a voice which seems to harness all the sadness of the world and spill it back at you with a haunted beauty that is often unmatched, Wandering Star tells a tale of fallen angels condemned to live in hellish pitch black anguish and torment forever more.
Firstly and most obviously, the chorus of Wandering Star is taken verbatim from Jude 1:13. In the Bible, ‘stars’ often represent angels, with Lucifer and his demons being referred to as “falling stars”. Take for example: “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to Earth, You who have weakened the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12). Lucifer was once an angel of light, “O star of the morning”, with good angels being known as morning stars. When translated, Lucifer means ‘shining one, morning star’. Wandering Star is a song about demons being cast into the abyss, written from the perspective of a demon as a metaphor for the suffering of a human being.
By taking on the form of the demon, Beth Gibbons taps into very human emotions. The line “Those who have seen the needle’s eye” is also a Biblical reference. See Mark 10:25 which states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”. Essentially, what this is saying is that those in a low condition who suffer on Earth, as opposed to those who are in a high condition and prosperous, are more likely to enter heaven. Here Gibbons uses the idea of “the needle’s eye” to depict the darkest place that a human being can be in.
Like many of Portishead’s songs, Wandering Star is about being in the midst of depression and the need to escape. Take for example, the lines “And the time that I will suffer less, Is when I never have to wake”, referring again to those who have suffered on Earth entering the Kingdom of God. The line “For it’s such a lovely day” is very telling as if we look at the etymology of the word ‘Lucifer’, a demon, we find that it is derived from the Latin word ‘Vulgate’ which translates as ‘the morning star, the planet Venus. If we take Pluto to be a Dwarf Planet as opposed to a Planet, there are seven Planets. Similarly, it took God seven days to create the Earth and finally, there are seven days in a week. Seven is the divine number of God and therefore, Wandering Star is a song which uses the image of a demon in order to talk about the emotions felt by a human being on Earth who is suffering great pain, battling their demons, questioning their life and looking to make it into Heaven. Discussing her lyrics and persona within Portishead in the 1998 documentary Welcome To Portishead, she said:
“Nothing is always as it seems, I think that’s the main thing and the one thing I would like people to realise (is) that, even, it’s like me laughing when we’re doing this, it just goes to show how different it is on the outside to the inside. Human beings are brilliant at pretending to be something they might not be … most of us live under a charade of a personality but underneath, we’re all the same. Most of us feel paranoid or lonely or unlucky in life or past heartbreaks or other family problems. You know, normal things that … things aren’t what they seem. So, however I come across, I might not be a good portrait of what I am”.