It is an undisputed cultural milestone. In 2003, Q magazine named it the tenth best British album ever. Among British albums of its era, only The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut has been more lauded. Yet, taken out of context 21 years after its release in June, 1991, how does Massive Attack’s Blue Lines hold up as music?
Blue Lines is different from The Stone Roses or even other similarly celebrated British albums of the time such as Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Happy Mondays’ Pills ‘n’ Thrills & Bellyaches, Blue Lines had nothing at all to do with rock’n'roll. Instead, it took elements of r&b, soul, hip-hop, and dub reggae, committed to the slowed tempos of the latter, and combined it all with the then-burgeoning dance music culture to create a new sound that was so fresh it demanded attention. This singular sound, so finely-detailed and carefully-assembled, was timeless. This is the primary reason Blue Lines has endured.
The very concept of Massive Attack was non-traditional. From the nebulous, Bristol-based Wild Bunch soundsystem emerged the line-up of Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles. Largely funded by UK pop star Neneh Cherry, the core trio established their highly collaborative working method of bringing in various producers and guest vocalists to help fill out their visions. Blue Lines remains the most truly unified result of this method, and in that respect it is the definitive Massive Attack release. As a musical and artistic statement, it remains almost redoubtable. As music, though, it is not without its flaws.
Blue Lines so defined by its singles that they have nearly become synonymous with the album itself, threatening to blue Blue Lines’ identity. If anything, this reissue forces a recalibration of perspective. The haunting, literally windswept “Safe From Harm” remains a powerful statement, the churning bassline and sharp hip-hop breakbeat creating a sense of danger from which Shara Nelson’s warm, rich, yearning vocals offer comfort. Crucially, though they made slow music that was not rock’n'roll, Massive Attack were anything but soft. This reality is established right from “Safe From Harm”‘s chorus, where Nelson warns, “If you hurt what’s mine, I’ll sure as hell retaliate,” whereupon Del Naja backs her up with his serpentine rapping. The song also features one of Massive Attack’s strongest choruses.
And then there is “Unfinished Sympathy”, a song that has been branded “one of the best ever” in its own right. Again, Nelson’s soulful vocals are crucial, only wounded and mad this time as she declares, “You’re the book that I have opened / And now I’ve got to know much more”. The strings swell as the emotion does, and another headsplitting breakbeat is employed. The end result is undeniably powerful, but you still can’t escape the fact the song has been overrated. Get beyond the chiming, Bob James-sampling opening and that initial rush of strings, and what you have isn’t much more or less than a very good, melodramatic, introspective midtempo Pet Shop Boys ballad.
The most rewarding re-discoveries lie in Blue Lines’ secondary tracks. Reggae great Horace Andy, the only guest vocalist to appear on all of Massive Attack’s albums to date, lends his inimitable quivering, melancholy to the Isaac Hayes-sampling “One Love”. Just barely propelled along by electric piano and beatbox, the song is perhaps the album’s best example of Massive Attack’s mastery of carefully-nuanced minimalism. A faithful, Nelson-fronted cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got” some relief from the heavy atmosphere, yet its melancholic optimism fits perfectly with the album’s overall vibe. The title track, with rapping from Tricky and 3D, is Hayes’ style of hushed, luscious bedroom music for a new era.
All of the standouts make it easy to forget Blue Lines also contains several tracks that, though tasteful and as carefully-constructed as the others, fail to dazzle. Those would include “Five Man Army” and minor single “Daydreaming”. These tracks serve as reminders that, even with Massive Attack’s focus on atmosphere and groove, exceptional songwriting goes a long way.
This “2012 Remix/Remaster” version of the album, with its rich mastering, is the one to own. Wisely, the band and label have included no bonus tracks, instead emphasizing the compact, capsule-like quality of the original tracklist. Of course, a “deluxe” edition is available, adding vinyl and audio DVDs, but still no bonus tracks.
Yes, Blue Lines is a milestone. But it is not Massive Attack’s masterpiece. Though some would disagree, that honor goes to 1994 follow-up Protection. Still, Blue Lines was and remains an extremely important release, one that spawned an entire sub-genre of imitators. And it has stood the test of time very well.
// Notes from the Road
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