There has always been an unusual feeling of space at the center of Massive Attack’s sound, as if the music was somehow adjacent to its own emotional core. Even in their most brilliant work — Shara Nelson’s voice clearing a path through the ragged and magnificent string arrangements of “Unfinished Sympathy” — the music’s heart feels somehow misplaced. What remains is a hole that perfectly suggests a forlorn and radiant lovesickness. Their work isn’t as much a reproduction of grief or loss or anger or rapture, as it is a series of perfect, and perfectly evocative, outlines. For all the emotional gravity that their better songs bring to bear, it is an effect that is accrued, rather than immediately impressed. The effect is as disorientating as it is unique.
During the band’s mid-’90s heyday, it was this sense of detachment that many critics took to be a deliberate stance: a strutting, po-faced alienation that represented the emotionally stunted distance of their generation. This was a misreading of the sources of British ‘trip-hop’ — more accurately, the ‘Bristol sound’ — more than it was an acute social insight. The members of Massive Attack earned their spurs with early ’80s sound systems; central to the acoustic requirements were the cavernous mid-range space of dub and the deliberately lo-fi drum programming drawn from old school hip-hop.
In any event, this aspect of their sound should work perfectly as an instrumental soundtrack. It is emotionally suggestive rather than domineering and manipulative; it lingers at the borders of attention without necessarily commanding it. It is abstract without being bland or mechanical.
Luc Besson’s thriller, to be named either Danny the Dog or Unleashed, is about a man who has been imprisoned since birth, released only for combat in vicious contests or as a mob enforcer. It will not be released for a number of months yet, which means that the score can stand on its own merits, not least because there are none of the increasingly obligatory snippets of dialogue spliced into the music.
On the other hand, it is a matter of pure conjecture whether the music is a perfect match for the film, although its tenor (like that of the film’s previews) is one that circles a childlike vulnerability and innocence with the capacity for unrestrained violence. Many of the tracks, in particular “Sam” and “Two Rocks and a Cup of Water”, have the delicate feeling of a lullaby — with a precise fragility that suggests a child’s music-box. In contrast, “The Dog Obeys” and “I Am Home” have a fast-gunned directness that outlines, rather less evocatively, the unfettered application of force.
The material is certainly as suggestive as it should be. Much of this is down to a focus on aural textures: these pieces are mostly too short to develop much depth as songs, melodies, or themes. The opening guitar notes of “Montage” are so soaked in reverb — and so free from any other context — that they recall for a moment the gospel sound of 1960s southern soul. The beauty of “Two Rocks and a Cup of Water” is as much down to the sharp, accentuated pluck of the strings as it is to the gorgeous contrapuntal movement of the melodic figures. Pieces like “Right Way to Hold a Spoon” are so free of overbearing melodies that the listener’s attention is never quite cast in the same way: previously unheard textures and figures come to the fore, others retreat.
Several moments will delight Massive Attack fans. Like much of 1995’s Protection, “Confused Images” has the feeling of artificial, machine-generated warmth, of a source of comfort that is somehow abstract, somehow absent the qualities of touch. It is quite beautiful. There’s something deeply familiar too about the introduction of “Collar Stays On”. The bassline bleeds into and over itself so much that the different notes begin to acquire a softly percussive quality.
One wishes that these moments would go on, not least because in many respects this is hardly a Massive Attack album at all. To all intents and purposes, Massive Attack is now founding member Robert Del Naja in collaboration with Neil Davidge. Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) left after 1998’s Mezzanine. Grant Marshall (Daddy G) did not take part in last year’s 100th Window or this project, although there are rumors that he will participate in a fifth studio album. With Mushroom and Daddy G gone, so is most of the reggae, dub, R&B, soul and Lovers Rock. The loose-limbed and balmy warmth that characterized their early releases is mostly absent from this material. Listeners who found 100th Window too cold, precise, and clinical will find a similar tendency here. True, the relative brevity of the less inspired pieces keeps them from being too monotonous. But the substitute for 100th Window‘s bleak claustrophobia is less often a return to the soulful roots of Blue Lines, but the washy blandness of tracks like “Everybody’s Got a Family”.
Much of the fault of this probably lies with the restrained emotional mandate of the soundtrack genre. If the ‘electronic/downtempo movie soundtrack’ is not yet an established subset, it certainly has its own conventions. Moments of “Atta Boy” and “Simple Rules” recall the Dust Brothers’ score for David Fincher’s Fight Club. The warm organ of “Polaroid Girl” echoes some of David Holmes’ work, particularly for Out of Sight, although here the effect is more symphonic and sweeping, less intimate and contingent.
The brittle and opaque beauty of some of these tracks will make you catch your breath, as will the sleek menace of others. But this release lacks the breadth of previous Massive Attack’s albums. Del Naja and Davidge have also scored Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy. None of this necessarily means a final narrowing of the Massive Attack sound, not least because Massive Attack have parted company with enough guest stars, vocalists, featured artists and associate members for 10 bands. Their line-up, as much as their sound, is never less than fluid. But their music now gazes too forcefully in one direction, instead of into its own fascinating heart.