BY JEFF LEVEN
Reviewing electronica, particularly trip-hop, always struck me as something akin to staring at a huge Rothko mural and trying to explain why the sorta greenish one on this wall is obviously so much better realized and gripping than the sorta reddish one on that wall. After all, trip-hop is a type of exercise in atmosphere — dense mixes of sounds and rhythms and voices and effects which, when played at room volume, tease out an enveloping feeling of place and mood. Good trip-hop is like candlelight — it’s nice for a variety of sensory-level reasons and it’s sometimes hard to translate all that onto paper. So, anyway, after listening to the big, swirling canvas of sound that is Massive Attack’s fourth full album (not counting the No Protection remix album), I figured the best way to proceed was to break all this out into different perspectives — walk you around the thing from a couple different viewpoints and hopefully leave you off with some sense of whether you’d want to hear more:
The Massive Attack career arc angle: Most reviews you’ll read about this album are going to take at least a few paragraphs to point out how important Massive Attack was to the development of trip-hop. They’ll give them credit (where due) for launching Tricky’s career, and will talk about how groups like Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps followed in their wake. They’ll then point out how their popularity peaked with the release of Protection, an alluring velvet kiss of an album whose jazzy title track turned Protection into the yuppie make-out album in the same way that Roxy Music’s Avalon was a decade before. And then, of course, the reviews will point out that it took them a full four years to conjure up their third disc, Mezzanine and then another five (!) years to finally release this, their fourth album in what has all of a sudden become twelve years. And, of course, when they dive into their review of 100th Window, they’ll point out that there is at this point only one original member of the production collective left — Robert del Naja (known as 3D), although Jamaican vocalist Horace Andy has returned for a pair of tracks. So, anyway, the big question is what this album does to the “group” and its legacy — bury it, sustain it or re-invent it?
As Massive Attack’s overall career goes, 100th Window is somewhat an exercise in running in place. While earlier albums blazed trails by being early examples of how this whole trip-hop thing is done, now the concept is out and the challenge is to take it to some other level or throw some new twists into the formula. While past albums like their debut Blue Lines or even Mezzanine were all about range and the heady mix of dub, jazz, hip-hop, and psychedelia, 100th Window feels strangely conservative — its dynamics are more subdued and in some ways its very seamlessness feels like a type of compromise. While a good trip-hop album isn’t necessarily something that confronts you and beats you over the head with its inventiveness, there is an absence of risk-taking on 100th Window that makes one wonder why it took so long. Perhaps the curse of taking five years to make an album is that you risk building up too many expectations and being co-opted too many times in the interim. When guys like DJ Shadow are putting out tracks like “Six Days” the bar has simply gotten higher, even for the original pioneers. And undoubtedly, while Massive Attack is still good at what they do, but for the most part what they do is still what they did in 1998 or even 1994, and that incarnation of the whole trip-hop thing has by now become Starbucks standard.
The Sinead thing: The most interesting move on 100th Window is the introduction of Sinead O’Connor as a new featured Massive Attack vocalist, following in the footsteps of Shara Nelson, Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorne, and the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Frasier. The stubble-headed Irish siren appears on three of the album’s nine tracks. For those who haven’t thought of Sinead since she last shredded pictures of the Pope, her appearance may seem somewhat random, but on paper it’s a stroke of genius — after all, what could sound better over brooding synthesizer waves and scissory trip-hop beats than a biting and impassioned Irish wail? Unfortunately, the collaboration is not as perfect in practice as it is in theory. The strange reality is that Sinead’s pipes aren’t all that powerful when pitted against such a bass-heavy and dense mix, and the effect is that she floats atop the layers of sound with a brittle detachment. Things work best when del Naja and producer Neil Davidge thin out the instrumentation a little bit and lurch forward rather than simmer underneath her, a task they finally accomplish on the political “A Prayer for England,” the most effective of her three appearances. Cinematic, propulsive, and impassioned, it’s a track dying for placement in the next Daniel Day Lewis flick. It’s also the closest thing to a single on an album without obvious radio tracks.
The craftsmanship angle: Despite its conceptual shortcomings, 100th Window remains beautifully rendered. The production values are, as always with Massive Attack, just excellent, and the attention to detail is immaculate — the counterpoint drum beat on the final seconds of “What Your Soul Sings,” exquisite reverb on Horace Andy’s vocals on “Everywhen,” kinetic Depeche Mode guitars on “Antistar,” and echo-drenched tambourine ripples in the middle of “Name Taken” are just some of the sonic treats tucked away in the recesses of the album’s soundscape. The songs develop and change with purpose and precision, and there is a fluid, listenable quality to the whole affair that makes it embraceable even by those for whom more abstract electronica might be off-putting or obtuse. In other words, it’s smart if smart is what you are looking for, but it is also the sort of thing that you can sit around and listen to without worrying about how smart it is.
The vibe: Dark, dark, dark and moody. More so than even other Massive Attack albums, there is a heaviness and a brooding alone-in-a-cold-room-at-3am quality to 100th Window. While it’s not as post-nuclear as something like the Black Heart Procession, it’s definitely late-night, smoky room music. Running through the tracks and accompanying packaging is a retreat into the nihilistic joys of anonymity and the comforting chaos of technological distances between people — as warm and enveloping as the music itself is, the lyrical fragments are often delivered with a mournful solipsism. The effect is strangely political — there’s a dirge-for-a-troubled era quality to 100th Window that “A Prayer for England” finally makes explicit — Massive Attack, after all, changed their name to Massive in 1991 to distance themselves from the terminology of the Gulf War, and while a certain brand of left-leaning international politics is par for the course in the English music scene, the effect here is more troubled and rueful than grandstanding or angry. To make that kind of statement in 74 minutes of largely instrumental music is itself an artist accomplishment, whether or not you share the turmoil of their emotional predilections.
The bottom line: This is a good album, but not a great album. The difference is largely one of degree. Like the rest of Massive Attack’s catalogue, it is the perfect album to throw on at some strange hour of an insomniac night when the lights are low, your body feels that strange bit of overtired hollowness and all is quiet. Like the rest of Massive Attack’s catalogue, it is a type of musical candlelight for creating a vaguely bohemian atmosphere in your bachelor pad, cocktail party or nouveau-trendy bar. What ultimately hampers 100th Window, however, is that in being so serviceable it is also pretty much more of the same, breaking relatively little new ground and adding relatively lit
tle to Massive Attack’s legacy. The Sinead appearance is interesting but imperfect, and while it is exciting to see the band experiment with new vocal possibilities, the overall production and range of the album doesn’t always rise to harness the collaboration’s potential.
For those new to Massive Attack, it’s not the first of their albums to reach for, nor is it necessarily an essential addition for the casual listener who already has some of their previous work. Fans of Massive Attack will certainly not be disappointed, though — not being a step forward in this case is not equivalent to being a step back, and the work as a whole maintains the level of craftsmanship and talent that Massive Attack fans have come to expect. Consider 100th Window to be something like that fifth Rothko painting in the gallery made somewhere towards the end of his career — not the thing that made the artist famous, not the best overall encapsulation of the artist’s craft, but, when all else is said and done, an intriguing and beautiful picture in its own right.