Review Summary: Mezzanine's got itself some fine moments, but a lack of variation and some uninspired vocal performances makes it tough to listen to as a whole. Those lyrics don't help much either.
It's probably beyond cliché at this point to start off an album review by talking about how the album's cover reflects the music, but screw that. With Massive Attack's third album Mezzanine
, the cover asks for it. Set upon a white canvas, a hunk of black sludge stains the purity, thus creating something that looks futuristic and dark. That's certainly the case for the album that lay behind this work of modern art. After two solid albums to start off their career, Massive Attack went darker and denser for their third album. Mezzanine
is considered by many to be the ultimate trip hop album, defining the genre and being a must have for any fan of music anywhere. Slow-pulse beats and slick production fill the album, and several guest spots from Cocteau Twins siren Liz Fraser only add to the mystique Mezzanine
carries with it. In fact the amount of praise this album gets is remarkable. To many critics, this is the album that almost single-handedly made trip hop a force to be reckoned with in the late 90's.
Why? I couldn't tell you.
Therefore this album is a puzzlement for me. From that aforementioned amount of praise, upon purchasing this album, I was expecting something incredible and unheard of, and Mezzanine
didn't deliver. While the aura certainly does have that futuristic hell feel throughout, the problems are in the songs. Throughout Mezzanine
, there's a consistently relaxed feel, with beats meandering along around a cool 80 beats per minute. Unfortunately, there's not enough diversity in the songs to warrant keeping the beats the same. After the first three tracks, each of which are very strong, Mezzanine
falls into the trap of repeating itself. Following a strict diet of beats heavy with reverb and airy vocal performances, Mezzanine
is consistent, but there's not enough substance to sustain it for eleven tracks, most of which are five or six minutes of the same melodic phrases repeated over and over again.
This isn't to say all the tracks are bad. Most of them actually have some good ideas musically, but the execution is where the album comes up short. Early album single "Teardrop" contains one of Liz Fraser's most famous/gorgeous vocal performances, and behind her a crescendo of sitar and dramatic piano chords set up the listener for a beautiful song. What they get is a beautiful song stretched thin. The song opens with Fraser crooning Love, love is a verb/ Love is a doing word
, and the lyrics don't get much better after that. "Teardrop"'s vocal melody, though quite pretty, repeats several times over the course of six minutes, and Fraser's non-sensible lyrics leave nothing to relate to. The song ends up as an overly long idea that didn't go anywhere. It's this lack of variation that kills many of the songs on Mezzanine
. The replayability of some of the songs is surprisingly low for the hype this album contains. "Black Milk" is eery enough, with Fraser again taking the microphone and this time whispering a lullabye over an uneasy groove, but again, six minutes of one melody, one tempo, one volume prevent the song from going anywhere, and by the time the album’s title track comes on, it's nearly impossible to remember how "Black Milk" was any different from "Dissolved Girl".
When Massive Attack actually mix it up, they create dynamite material, which makes their inability to do so on over half the songs all the more frustrating. The album opens with the ethereal "Angel", which spotlights Horace Andy's ridiculously high Jamaican tenor and throws in some climaxes and beat changes to make the song worth the 6:19 it plays for. Flipping between tight hi-hat/cross stick beats and swelling crash cymbal/deep snare hits, "Angel" plays dynamics brilliantly, causing several musical apexes. The guitar lines between Andy's verses only increase the dramatic emphasis. Andy's vocal performance is tight, but don't be fooled; he's awful on his other two opportunities to sing, "Man Next Door" and the seemingly pointless "Exchange". The latter of these two tracks is played twice on the album, once with, once without Andy's vocals, and both times the song is boring and almost stupid sounding. The Andy version is the finale, and after the absolutely stellar "Group Four", "Exchange" unintentionally sabotages "Group Four"'s beauty.
"Group Four" is a duet between Fraser and the snide whisper of Robert De Naja (3D). De Naja's voice embodies the paranoia Massive Attack's music is supposed to portray. His whispers of "A flask I drink of sober tea/ While relay cameras monitor me. And the buzz surrounds it does. Buzz surrounds/ Buzz surrounds"
are met with Fraser's angel-of-death echo-heavy voice sighing "Closed eyed sky wide open/ Unlimited girl unlimited sigh"
, and the song's off. The exchange between the two voices set up a stark contrast in style, with 3D being the sinner, and Fraser the saint. This goes on for five minutes, when 3D ends it with "Flickering I Roam." Here rests Mezzanine
's best moment: a balls out swell of Fraser's heavenly vocal line, drowned under guitar and marching drums that consistently speed up for the album's climax, making "Group Four" the best song on Mezzanine
and a perfect album closer.
Hence, the redundant 50's jam that follows it with vocals filling the nasal/annoying quota obliterates everything that came before it entirely.
"Group Four"'s brilliance isn't anywhere else in Mezzanine
, but De Naja is, and his vocal performances are the best from the male trio. His duet with deep black bass Grant Marshall in "Risingson" only accentuates one of the best songs on the album. There's a real groove here, and the swirling delivery of 3D and Marshall's admittedly deranged lyrics ("Toy like people make me boy like"???) create the intended effect most of Mezzanine
tries, but fails to deliver. These two pop up again later to provide the vocals on the title track, and though this track contains the same problems that the more indistinguishable tracks on Mezzanine
have, De Naja's sighs over futuristic relaxed electronic beats somehow make this one distinguishable from the other formula-tracks.
But unfortunately, for every good track on Mezzanine
, there are at least two tracks that don't have enough special about them to make Mezzanine
worth the hype. As an album, Mezzanine
flows hypnotically, but not in a mesmerizing way. There's just not enough substance to back the amount of style Mezzanine
carries with it. It maintains a high level of cool throughout, sounding like the soundtrack to some smoke filled, martini-drinker party, but the songs just don't stick. Just like in those parties, the atmosphere is murky, and you may even become intoxicated while being there, but the next morning it's doubtful you'll remember too much of it.