Counterbalance No. 32

Massive Attack’s 'Blue Lines'

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

6 May 2011

For the 32nd edition of Counterbalance, Mendelsohn and Klinger sang about the sun and danced among the trees. As a result they very nearly missed their deadline. Nevertheless, their take on Massive Attack's 1991 trip-hop masterpiece is next.

Klinger: I must confess, Mendelsohn—like most Americans, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines completely passed me by in 1991, so this Counterbalance exercise has been my first real experience with an album that’s apparently had quite an impact. Mea culpa. Overall, I find this to be a very good album. Really, I have nothing against Blue Lines. That said, as I listen I can’t escape the feeling that I’m shopping at the Gap.

Mendelsohn: The Gap? You’re going to have to explain that one to me. Although if the Gap plays Massive Attack over the in-store speakers, I might have to work up the courage to go in there one day.

Klinger: I guess it’s those beats and the laid back vibe that just cause me to picture casually-yet-stylishly dressed young people folding shirts and asking me if need any help. Maybe it’s me.
Mendelsohn: Frankly, I am surprised by this album’s placement on the list. It seems to come out of left field. But again, as you mentioned before, that might have to do something with our nation of origin. If we were from the UK, it might make more sense. Personally, as a guy with a soft spot for electronic music, I’m overjoyed to see this type of album ranking so high in the canon. But compared to just about everything we’ve listened to so far, Blue Lines is borderline avant-garde. The pop and rock constructions that provided the foundation for this list suddenly give way to drum loops, strange sound samples, hip hop verses, and a decidedly laid-back vibe.

We may have to investigate the UK club scene in the early ‘90s in order to understand just why this album is so highly regarded.

Klinger: But given our lack of access to a Wayback Machine (and my irrational fear of men named Bez), I don’t think a direct investigation is warranted. So we’re best left to assess the merits of Blue Lines on its own terms. Since Blue Lines is closer to your wheelhouse, Mendelsohn, I’ll defer to your expertise.

Mendelsohn: I’m disappointed that we are still unable to squeeze a Wayback Machine out of the Counterbalance Budget committee. Stodgy little penny pinchers. How do they expect us to do our jobs without a time machine? Or a private plane? Or several kilos of coke and the strippers off of whom to snort said coke?

But I digress. Let’s look at the facts. Most of the albums we have talked, aside from just being plain good, fall into one (or more) of these categories:

+ They provided the foundation for a genre.
+ They showed an artist making a sea change to their sound or the sound of a genre.
+ They make a grand artistic statement (or they are a pile, depending on your point of view).
+ They effectively repurpose past music, transforming easily recognizable set pieces into something new, providing a link from the past to the present.

Massive Attack’s album fits neatly into three of the four categories. Blue Lines provided the foundation for the trip-hop genre and introduced the mainstream to downtempo electronica. Blue Lines transformed hip hop into trip-hop, providing a new way to look at hip hop, an already fractured genre that continues to splinter and experiment thanks in large part to the DJ culture Massive Attack had a hand in. Aside from hip hop, Massive Attack also repurposed reggae, taking dub, slowing it down and filtering it through their own lens.

Klinger: I’ll say that this has to be the slowest album we’ve encountered thus far, and I dare say it’s the stonedest, which is really saying something. Curious, then, that Blue Lines has had so little direct impact on American culture. After all, US hip hop was going through its own transformation as the trend shifted from the Native Tongues to West Coast, and both West Coast hip hop and this newfangled trip-hop are certainly redolent with the sickly sweet scent of cannabis sativa.

Meanwhile, the sound that we apparently first hear on Blue Lines is heard all throughout our culture, from the trendy nightclubs I’m encouraged not to attend, to your local business-casual clothier. So why, then, is this album, so far removed from our US consciousness? Especially when you consider that this record—and most notably the single “Unfinished Sympathy”— was a huge hit with a lasting impact in the UK.

Mendelsohn:  I’m going to put this as nicely as possible: Americans are unsophisticated rubes. That’s a slight exaggeration, but from the beginning, mainstream music in the US has been anything if not formulaic. Massive Attack doesn’t quiet fall into the accepted guitar/bass/piano/drums, two-and-a-half-minute pop song format. On top of that, I think the UK listeners would be quicker to pick up on the reggae cues in Blue Lines.

But that doesn’t mean that downtempo electronica hasn’t quietly become completely ubiquitous. This type of music can be found everywhere these days thanks in large part to Massive Attack creating a template for an artist like Moby to put out an album like Play, which spawned some radio hits and countless car commercials

Klinger:  Er, yes, rubes. Couldn’t agree with you more (he said, quietly nudging his Cheap Trick box set under the couch). While it’s true that we are the most rockist of nations, I think our reluctance to fully accept dance music as anything beyond a shorthand for chic European styling and sleek, responsive automotive engineering is actually something that’s deeply ingrained in our American mythology.

Americans, with our emphasis on rugged individualism and bootstrap pulling, are naturally going to root for the hard working rock and roll band, slogging its way from town to town, playing one-night stands to ever-increasing crowds, waiting for that one big break that’s going to put them over the top. I think on a certain level we equate the myth of the rock group to that of pioneers or roving bands of gunslingers or the antiheroic motorcycle gangs in films like The Wild One.

Even US hip hop artists often present themselves as modern-day Horatio Alger types, who escape the life of slinging rock for Cristal and general jet-settery. Dance music, with its images of bedsit wunderkinds programming beats and mixing samples on their laptops, lacks that same mythology. Of course, these myths are largely apocryphal, a testament to the power of wishful thinking. But even so, Massive Attack’s poorly received US tour in 1991 might well have tipped the balance away from the group in the eyes of the Stateside industry. Which is a shame, because there were a number of potential hit singles on Blue Lines—“Safe from Harm” could have been bigger, and of course their rendition of “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” had Top 40 written all over it.

Mendelsohn: Nowadays, the lone gunman musician archetype has become much more accepted, thanks in large part to technology and the ability to reach the masses without having to leave the bedroom.

I just don’t think America was quite ready for Massive Attack in 1991. The group may not have fit the lone gunman archetype, but they also fell short of the rockist notion of what constitutes a band. On top of that, they weren’t quite hip hop either so there is yet another audience, one who was used to the idea of performers rapping and being backed by a DJ, who ignored them as well.

After all of that, it is really surprising to find Blue Lines so high on the Great List. I think it deserves to be there for the precedent it had set—but still, what a shocker.

Klinger: Shocker indeed. But as much as I enjoy this album, I think my latent rockist tendencies mean that I still need a shove toward fully understanding why this album deserves this high of a ranking. Walk me through it, Mendelsohn—what should I be listening for?

Mendelsohn: I can’t tell you what to you need to hear if you are unwilling to listen. I don’t mean to sound dismissive but I think it clearly illustrates the subjective nature of the music experience, be it personally or culturally.
Honestly, I don’t have any concrete answers as to why this album, as opposed to say something by Portishead or Moby or maybe even Fatboy Slim (I guess) was the highest ranked electronic album on the list. I’m just as confused as you are because, while I like electronic music, I’m not a huge fan of Massive Attack.

I’m going to go back to my point about dub reggae and connect to something you said earlier about this album being the “stonedest” record we’ve listened to so far. Dub and trip-hop are leaves from the same branch. There is a certain mindset, perceived or otherwise, that helps some people enjoy this music more than others, especially when it comes to the repetitive beats with lots of low end rhythm.

Let me extrapolate further. Contextually speaking, in 1991, America was on the back end of Just Say No and it would still be another year until future president Bill Clinton admitted to smoking weed but not inhaling (still not sure how that works). Traditionally, where America has typically been rockist, we’ve also been a nation of drinkers. Trip-hop and booze do not sit well together. Americans like to get soused and wreck up the place. Rock is the perfect soundtrack for that kind of activity.

Klinger: And American beer, with its tendency to angry up the blood, is the perfect beverage!

Mendelsohn: That all ties into the whole, right leaning, gunslinger/outlaw mentality. We’re Americans. We do what we want and we do it with booze and rock and roll. And if it doesn’t involve those things we are suspicious of it. Our counterparts in Europe, however, seem to have had a bit more pervasive stance on certain issues and might be more accepting of differing points of view in regards to music and what not.

Klinger: So just to sum up, Americans are cheap-beer-fueled meatheads who all think they’re John Wayne and like their music as crude and loud as they are. Europeans, meanwhile, are spliff-addled libertines who are easily mesmerized by repetitive, droning sounds. No wonder Counterbalance is so popular!

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