By the end of last year, I found myself hoping that all hip-urban-space-dwellers found utilizing the word “lounge” in conjunction with the word “music” be summarily taken outside and shot. Ditto any and all label-execs responsible for albums containing the word “chill” in their title. Dance music’s obsession with down-tempo beats had become endemic. One could hardly apportion blame to Massive Attack for such a dreary state of affairs, but it is true that the origins of this phenomena lead all the way back to their 1991 release, Blue Lines.
The original Massive sound was a slick amalgamation of dub, dance hall, hip-hop, and reggae; Blue Lines absorbed these sounds, tossed them around and spat them out in smooth soul-kiss streams, creating a template from multiple sources for something fresh, vibrant and new. The Face magazine, which at that time held influential sway over the young cultural elite, sealed the album’s status by declaring it Album of the Year.
By the time of the follow-up (1994’s Protection), however, the Massive collective found itself already significantly splintered. Vocalist Shara Nelson was heading towards an anonymous solo career, and mind-messing lyricist Tricky abandoned the project almost before it began. Tricky adapted his contributions to his own solo masterwork Maxinquaye, while the three remaining core band members — 3D (Robert Del Naja), Mushroom (Andrew Vowles), and Daddy Gee (Grant Marshall) — enlisted vocalist Tracey Thorn (of Everything but the Girl) to fill the spot previously held down by Nelson.
Protection is the least successful of the Massive albums, renowned primarily for the two Thorn contributions — the title track and “Better Things”. The overpowering singularity of Thorn’s voice resonated so greatly that in retrospect, Protection often feels as much like an EBTG album as one belonging to Massive Attack. Certainly the album changed the group’s direction, and even saved the careers of Thorn and her partner in EBTG, Ben Watt. The remainder of the album was often beautifully melodic, but also utterly disjointed. The principle players could audibly be found struggling to arrive at a common aesthetic.
Four years further down the line, the publicity campaign surrounding the release of the third Massive album (1998’s Mezzanine) based itself entirely on tales of creative conflict and band disintegration. The album opened with a direct sonic force, a series of sharp shocks the likes of which little in the back catalogue had hinted at. The strain of making the album was palpable in its sonic lure, yet unlike Protection, Mezzanine actually used conflict in its favor, producing an album that offered blistering sounds and, in “Teardrop”, a moment of sublime tranquility. Still, such was the power of the opening four tracks that again the work as a whole felt unbalanced. Several later tracks worked well enough individually, but long before the album reached any conclusion it floundered, lost in a bruised concussive haze, the shell-shocked aftermath of those opening 20 minutes.
Now comes Massive Attack’s fourth full-length release, 100th Window. It is a work of delicate menace, tackling themes of spiritual frigidity in contemporary life, and clarifying the genealogy of a collective that never was a “group” in any conventional pop music sense of the word at all.
In fact, the album might easily have been titled And Then There Was One, for it is primarily the work of 3D. Co-founder Mushroom fled the coop after touring for Mezzanine, and Daddy Gee absented himself early in 2001 due to family-related issues (It has been suggested that Daddy Gee will be part of the upcoming promotional tour; also, reggae maestro Horace Andy has appeared on each of the Massive albums, yet somehow he is not considered a part of the Massive lineage).
100th Window reveals that the underlying aesthetic of Mezzanine also belonged to 3D. If the earliest Massive Attack sounds were notably multi-cultural urban, they now almost solely belong to white-boy electronica; certainly there is no longer a rap in sight.
Somewhere in here, there is both a prologue and epilogue to Mezzanine. If that album offered direct sonic assault, then the present work suggests grim warning, as well as cleansing for the damage already done. This is most specifically true of the contributions of guest vocalist Sinead O’Connor. A frequent, and sometimes disappointing collaborator (see: Moby, James, etc.), O’Connor’s work here is the best, most direct and affecting stuff she’s contributed in ages. Nobody has ever questioned the woman’s integrity as an artist, nor her fearlessly confrontational lyrics, but too often in recent years O’Connor has surrendered the conviction of her delivery; her voice has sometimes taken on a light trembling note, both hesitant and fearful.
Here she sets the lyrical tone, lightly breathing “Don’t be afraid ” into the opening of “What Your Soul Sings”. Later, in “A Prayer for England”, one of the album’s most powerful tracks, she forcibly laments, “Let not another child be slain / Let not another search be made in vain / . . . Jah help us / We need more loving”. Her impassioned rendering of the lyrics provides the most heightened and elegiac response to the spiritual coldness described on much of this album, and also on Mezzanine.
While O’Connor’s lyrics offer a clear narrative, 3D’s renderings are more sensory, a stream of consciousness cut-up of atmospheric details. Horace Andy again turns them into a haunting and lovely poetry, his distinctive vibrato providing a warm counterpoint to the cool coruscation of the music.
The music itself is close, allowing little room to breathe. And where Massive Attack continue in triumph over those who followed is in creating something that amounts to more than mere atmosphere. Too often, the work of ever-presents on cool-as-in-comatose compilations (think Thievery Corporation, K & D, etc.) resembles interesting architectural spaces left unfurnished. These spaces may very well be pretty and full of detail, but they remain essentially empty. Their visions don’t include a place in which to grow or explore, only a place to be at that moment — and as we know, nothing is more fleeting than the present.
With 100th Window, Massive Attack have reached a destination of sorts. Any significant shift in direction at this point would come as considerable surprise. Over the course of twelve years, though, through changed and dwindling personnel, they have managed to fulfill all promises made back in the day. It’s more than we have right to expect perhaps, and anything from here on out might just be considered soul-gravy.