Simply on the basis of the fourteen songs included on Collected, Massive Attack stake a mighty persuasive claim towards being one of the best pop groups of all time.
The first thing you notice about Collected is the cover; that is, it's hard not to notice the fact that it is simply and utterly gorgeous. A digital photo collage credited to Nick Knight, it conjures up all of Massive Attack's perennial thematic associations -- war, death, love, technology, decay, and the intersection of these ideas with our lives. It's the kind of fascinating imagery you don't see used on album covers much these days, a striking piece that does more than merely advertise the disc's contents, making a solid aesthetic statement that bridges the gap between conception and reality in the audience's mind. It could stand well on its own but as a prelude to the content within, the cover for Collected is particularly effective.
I realize it's a bit unusual to spend so much time talking about an album cover . . . but then, Massive Attack is more than a bit unusual. Every element involved in the presentation of their music is painstakingly assembled and crafted to exacting standards. You won't see them rushing out a souvenir live disc or releasing filler B-Sides. At times, of course, this kind of exacting perfectionism can be the group's Achilles' Heel, as they have proven singularly vulnerable to line-up changes and fractious dissent among founding members, the kind of upheaval that a less regimented group may have managed to avoid. The fact that Massive Attack managed to maintain a relatively prolific schedule throughout the 90s, releasing three albums and a spate of side projects in the space of seven years, is nothing short of amazing considering the uniform level of quality. It's worth pointing out that despite all the internal strife, as well as the constant changing face of the electronic music world around them, Massive Attack's first three albums (Blue Lines , Protection  and Mezzanine ) are rightly regarded as one of the best runs in recent years, earning a degree of near-universal critical approbation rivalled only by the likes of Radiohead. (And it is perhaps worth noting that not even Radiohead can be said to have created an entire genre with the influence of their first album.)
Be that as it may, I have personally felt Massive Attack's album's to be slightly patchy affairs, seeded with generally brilliant singles and choice album tracks but unable to maintain a consistent level of quality throughout. This is perhaps to be expected: after all, when you start off an album like Mezzanine with four of the best electronic music tracks ever recorded -- "Angel", "Risingson", "Teardrop" and "Inertia Creeps", in that order -- the flip side of the record is going to rather pale in comparison. But putting all the group's best moments on one single disc simplifies the matter both for casual admirers and long-time fans desiring a potent reminder of just why Massive Attack matters so much. To wit: simply on the basis of the fourteen songs included on Collected, Massive Attack stake a mighty persuasive claim towards being one of the best pop groups of all time.
The album begins -- where else? -- with the iconic "Safe From Harm", the powerful, kinetic bass line of which remains both instantly recognizable and immensely satisfying. From "Safe From Harm" we move to Protection's smoked-out "Karmacoma", on to three tracks from Mezzanine presented almost verbatim from their album running order, "Angel", "Teardrop" and "Inertia Creeps". From the heights of "Inertia Creeps" (surely both one of the most sensual and the most paranoid songs ever recorded) the disc descends to the stately, cosmopolitan melancholy of "Protection", featuring Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn's in one of her most plaintive vocal performances.
At this point it would be easy to accuse the hits disc of falling into exactly the same trap as the group's proper albums: that is, front-loading the disc with the best tracks, allowing the record to taper off disconsolately towards the end. But the sequencing of the album reveals a more deft touch. While the first half dozen or so tracks are absolutely unimpeachable, the second half of the album proceeds on a much more subtle but no less impressive track, finally concluding with an obligatory new song, the melancholy "Live With Me". Featuring the vocals of folk singer Terry Callier, the track represents a return to the soul music origins of the group's earliest material, combining the more traditional production of Blue Lines with a comparatively restrained incarnation of 100th Window's atmospherics. As opposed to most of the new tracks usually tacked onto "greatest hits" packages by record labels, "Live With Me" is actually a highpoint, an uncharacteristic ballad but nevertheless a strong showing from a group on the rebound.
One of my main concerns in regards to Collected was whether or not the material off 2003's 100th Window, generally considered to be a step-down from the previous three LPs, would represent a precipitous drag in quality compared to the tracks culled from the 90s albums. Much to my pleasant surprise, the tracks from 100th Window actually make a great argument for the reappraisal of that album. Placed on the back end of the disc among more subtle songs such as "Risingson" and "Five Man Army", the contemplative mood of tracks such as "Future Proof" and "What Your Soul Sings" shines through in a way that was perhaps obscured among the mixed critical reception and general disappointment that met the album upon its initial release.
Collected comes in two versions, a bare-bones hits disc as well as a deluxe edition which includes a double-sided DualDisc. As is to be expected from a group with such high standards, however, the deluxe edition is no mere sop to the fans. Taken as a whole, this three-disc set is undoubtedly one of the best presentations of this type I've ever seen. The audio side of the DualDisc contains almost an hour of unreleased tracks, intriguing studio scraps and a handful of rarities, while the DVD side features every single video Massive Attack have produced. (For the sake of completists I should probably note that the DVD features every video contained on 2002's Eleven Promos disc, and is presented in digital stereo as opposed to that disc's regrettable mono. Also, due to the fact that the disc was manufactured in Holland, there are some reports of the DualDisc not functioning properly on all American players -- but it played OK on mine. Caveat emptor and all that jazz.)
The audio disc presents almost an hour of rarities, but in this instance "rarity" should not be taken to mean "superfluous". In another universe, a track such as the aggressive electro stomper "I Against I", recorded with Mos Def for inclusion on the soundtrack to the forgettable vampire flick Blade II, could have easily found a berth on the first disc. A cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" recorded with Madonna is also included for the benefit of those of us who didn't wish to purchase her 1995 album Something To Remember. A sampling of the group's soundtrack work appears, including the themes from both 2004's Danny the Dog (released as Unleashed in the United States) and 2005's Bullet Boy.
The DVD presents a useful contrast to the first disc. The videos are presented in straight chronological order, beginning not with "Safe From Harm" but with "Daydreaming", the group's first single, which most fans will recognize as one of the more low-key tracks off the B-side of Blue Lines. In terms of videos, Massive Attack has had more luck than most groups, choosing their collaborators with care and producing a handful of clips that rank with some of the most impressive videos ever shot. While most of the Blue Lines era videos may seem, in retrospect, fairly predictable -- following the ensemble as they rap and sing the tracks -- there was still a grit and pathos, as reflected in the particularly absorbing cinematography seen on clips such as "Safe From Harm" and "Unfinished Sympathy", that stood apart from the clips of the time.
"Be Thankful For What You've Got" is the disc's first stand-out. Directed by Baillie Walsh (also responsible for the group's earlier, fairly static videos), the clip showcases an extremely desexualized strip tease on the part of a harried dancer in a modern burlesque. Stepping apart from the worst vices of unimaginative music videos, this was an important step forward for the group, moving away from a literal presentation of their music and further into the realm of a more vigorous and austere thematic treatment. Sure enough, the first Protection era clip, "Sly", takes this sensibility to a new level. In retrospect, again, this may not seem like that interesting a video: the Asian motif, the reverse filters, and the smoky street scenes may all seem redundant now, but in 1994 this kind of pre-Millennial imagery was still quite exotic.
"Protection" follows. Considering just how absolutely degraded and marginalized a format music videos are, it is still bracing to encounter a clip that defies the general trends by presenting a genuinely stirring, fascinating, unconventional and endlessly engrossing corollary to the song itself. Directed by Michel Gondry, the video is one of those visual riddles that defies simple description, utilizing a constantly moving camera to show an apartment building that seems to experience a different gravity than that of the world around it. It is, in the truest sense of the world, a trip. It won MTV Europe's award for best video in 1995, and deservedly so.
Massive Attack won that same award again three years later for "Teardrop", which carries the distinction of being both incredibly creepy and inescapably affecting. The video features a long close-up shot of a baby in the womb singing along with Elizabeth Fraser's haunting vocal and reacting to the vague implications of action and motion outside. The first time I saw the video it spooked me for years afterwards, and every time it came on the TV I switched the channel. Well, I've come around to watching it again but it still takes me aback.
The clips for "Angel" and "Inertia Creeps" are also notable, ensconced deep within a visual representation of the same paranoia and anxiety that overwhelms that album. "Angel" is a beautifully shot chase scene that, ultimately, ends with an anticlimax, whereas "Inertia Creeps" revisits the same kind of psycho-sexual territory we first explored on "Karmacoma", with hotel rooms and adultery and weird sex permeated with regret and disgust. It's effective, and effectively brutal.
I had never seen any of the 100th Window era videos before and they are unsurprisingly very good. "Special Cases" in particular may not have been one of the album's highlights, but the clip is an interesting mini-narrative on the subject of genetic engineering that manages to be both touching and ominous. The newest track, "Live With Me", is presented in two versions. One features a close up of singer Terry Callier's lips as he performs the song, and it about as appetizing in practice as it probably sounds. But the other clip is perhaps one of the most brutal, emotionally raw pieces of filmmaking I've ever scene. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the clip follows a young woman (unfortunately uncredited) as she attempts to kill herself by drinking bottle after bottle of vodka. We don't know why she's doing this (although the plaintive music gives us a clue) but it's easy enough to see the kind of pain she's trying to drown.
Both the video and song for "Live With Me" attest to the fact that there's still something potent left in the Massive Attack concept. Despite the fractious infighting over the last half-dozen years, the group appears to be coming together again. Associate member Tricky left to begin his own career back in 1994 following the release of Protection), and founding member Andrew Vowles ("Mushroom") left in 1998 after Mezzanine, citing a dissatisfaction with the band's direction. This left only two members -- Robert Del Naja ("3D") and Grant Marshall ("Daddy G") -- both of whom have made no secret of the fact that they don't see eye to eye. Most interesting, although Marshall never officially left the band, 100th Window was essentially a solo effort by Del Naja, featuring no contributions from Marshall and additional songwriting credited throughout the album to Neil Davidge, a familiar face from the Mezzanine sessions. Most critics attributed the relative critical failure of 100th Window to Marshall's absence.
But things are looking up. Both Del Naja (with Davidge) and Marshall are busy recording material for a follow up to 100th Window, albeit separately. The idea has even been floated of releasing a kind of Speakerboxxx / The Love Below compromise, allowing both producers to work essentially in isolation from the other. It's an interesting work relationship that would be unthinkable for almost any other group to manage -- imagine the Chemical Brothers working in isolation, or Orbital. But then, Massive Attack has always been something special, not exactly prey to the same external pressures -- commercial concerns and compromises -- that assail most bands. The only real enemy Massive Attack has ever had is Massive Attack itself, and the fractured, modular nature of the band is both its greatest weakness and its greatest strength.
There is perhaps a price to be paid for being so relentlessly ahead of the curve. When Blue Lines first appeared, signaling both a tentative beginning for British hip-hop as well as an organic extension of contemporary dance culture, it sounded like nothing else. And then, of course, the sound was so potent as to aspire dozens of imitators, practically inventing the genre of trip-hop (a label the group has always abhorred) out of the whole cloth of Massive Attack's influence. The pressure of constant invention pushed them forward and past the imitators and further towards the expanses of dark, psychedelic sound that was always present as a potentiality from the dawn of American hip-hop. But American hip-hop has always been governed by appeal to the streets and a theoretical idea of "reality" (influenced, to be blunt, by commercial pressures) that has prevented most artists from really exploring the possibilities implicit in sampled sound. Whenever hip-hoppers have breached the limits of readily available possibility -- Kool Keith, the Roots, Common on Electric Circus -- the reaction from American audiences has been cold indifference. (Outkast is the singular exception to this rule, but at this point they are something of a phenomenon unto themselves.)
From the early days as dub-influenced hip-house -- barely one step removed from Soul II Soul -- on through the assimilation of more cosmopolitan world music sounds and their apotheosis as an intimately baroque, vastly expansive orchestral entity, Massive Attack have always represented a sui generis synthesis of the strongest currents of popular music. That so many people have built long and storied careers off of essentially aping that sound is to be expected -- and in the case of respected groups such as Portishead and Lamb, to say nothing of Tricky, it does them little dishonor to say that, regardless of their respective careers, early 90s Bristol and the "Massive Attack music", as Marshall puts it, was their starting point. But can the group continue forward after having established such an immensely intimidating discography? If they hadn't already built such an imposing CV, it wouldn't matter -- but the fact is that Massive Attack is one of the few groups that does matter. Seeing them falter now when chances for a recovery seem so strong would be simply heartbreaking, and Collected has come along at just the right time to remind us why we should care.