Though having relocated to the UK in early 2022, Belgian duo Portland show their ideological roots to the US city on second LP, Departures.

Jente Pironet and Sarah Pepels formed through their mutual artistic tastes, including a soft spot for late singer-songwriter Elliot Smith and his heart-on-sleeve recordings, their band name being a direct homage to the hometown of Smith. Portland is well known as spiritual ground for artists across Europe, the UK and the US. Indeed, many influences from bands well known to the city are heard on Departures. On tracks like Sensational and How It Is, the compositions of melodic guitar phrases (former) and brass (latter) are reminiscent of Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s output for The National. Elsewhere you might find traces of The Smiths (Serpentine), The War On Drugs (Last Trip) and The Shins (Alyson).

That’s not to say it’s all about soundalikes for Portland. Pironet and Pepels combine their sublime harmonies to make for a refreshing alternative version of modern pop. Fat lead guitars blend with understated keys and pulsating drums, providing a danceable canvas for the duo’s vocals on songs such as Good Girls and Where Did Everybody Go.

The album’s themes tend to focus on romance, both experienced and unrequited. On Last Place, Pironet sings, “Let’s take another trip for the end of summer / I’ll take you to the moon and bring you back.” His angst of worrying that this love is fleeting is soothed by Pepels’ ethereal harmony providing a calm shore.

The call and response drama played out in Little Bit Closer – of a couple at odds between keeping secrets and attempting intimacy – is palpable when they sing, “Baby, I ain’t going to keep my little secrets / Sometimes it’s better not to know.”

In contrast, a more dangerous kind of love is played out on Serpentine. Its writhing guitar sounds a warning of venom in a relationship that is not what it seems: “Hard to get / so easy upset / your love disguises itself as a threat.”

Departures is a stylishly sophisticated record, with production accentuating both artists’ stunning vocals and knack for classic pop hooks. It perhaps lacks an edge in places but who says that’s a requirement all the time anyway? This is a record which will help its listener contemplate some deep questions about the complex facets of love, being and understanding. It doesn’t always have to be on-your-knees fists in the air despair; instead, quiet soulful reflection works just as well: “Sorry for my sins / I’ve got this past I have to carry” (So Sweet).

Portland’s sophomore release is a record worthy of your attention and it’ll be interesting to see how they evolve their oeuvre moving forward.