Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 4)
There’s always contrast. Manchester was pumping out shaggy club music; Bristol was producing the soundtrack to the eerily quiet ride home.
Madchester demanded Trip-hop and so it was. Rap music had previously been imitated by Britain without being particularly innovative. Blue Lines
gave England something distinctive, taking the emphasis away from dense lyricism and overpoweringly thick drums in favor of something more evasive; mood.
Beginning as The Wild Bunch, the trio composed of Robert Del Naja, Daddy G, and Andrew Vowles, who would come to be known as Massive Attack, may have remained anonymous if it wasn’t for local scenestress Neneh Cherry. Her own left field success, Raw Like Sushi
, allowed her to bankroll the efforts of the trio. Her belief in the group’s talents are what whipped the duo into shape, even letting them turn her daughters bedroom into a recording studio. It was through her that regular Massive collaborators, Horace Andy and Shara Nelson, were recruited. DJ Milo, a cohort of the trio, introduced them to a local troublemaker called Tricky Kid. Although Tricky’s time with Massive Attack left him wanting – he was always on the outside of the group - his contributions would prove vital in shaping the sound of their first two records.
It opens on pure atmosphere. This really was a genre all about mood, the songs had to feel right, every element working towards a common goal. Opener “Safe From Harm” already makes its goal clear before a single instrument is played as a low ominous wind sails through the mix. Then it accomplishes that goal as the crisp drum loop and trench coat bassline drop in out of the gray. This is impossibly cool music, full of cast glances and cigarette embers. With sub-bass that will change the way you walk, “Blue Lines” and “Five Man Army” has Tricky, 3D, and Daddy G tag team flowing over hotel lobby jazz and faded dub skank. The three were always underrated as MC’s, emphasizing feel over words. “Be Thankful for What You Got” reassembles smooth quiet storm as something more fractured as turntable wipes keep the track from sinking into elevator music.
”You’re the book that I have opened/And now I’ve got to know much more.”
“Unfinished Sympathy” is one of the biggest tunes to come out of England in the 90s. It conveys an incredibly wide spectrum of emotions through its wordless background wail alone, those drums snik and clatter over weighty piano chords, an orchestra takes over when Shara Nelson’s words finally fail her. We get joy, (“The curiousness of your potential kiss/has got my mind and body aching), fear (“Will it hurt me babe?/Will it cut me?/How can you have, a day without a night?”) and finally, eternal longing (“Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/I’m missing every part”). It’s a stellar tune, possibly the best song to come from a group with so much more to offer.
Closing number “Hymn of the Big Wheel” sees the bigger picture. Clever to close an album that takes place on dank concrete with a song that sounds like the sun setting on African tundra. Andy Horace sings of far off lands and dense mysticism with an aged wisdom, but those drums and serrated keyboards keep him firmly grounded in urban Bristol. “As satellites and cameras watch from the skies/An acid drop of rain washed away my shadow, burned a hole in me.” Is it affecting or am I stoned? Could I say that about every song on the album? Blue Lines
has that kind of pull, heavy lidded and smoky, it intoxicates with a power that would be worrying if the music wasn’t so damn cool. Massive Attack would go on to further the sound established in ways both calmer (Protection
) and frighteningly cinematic (Mezzanine
), but trip-hop had its DNA encoded here. Listen to this two decade old album and hear the future.
Next: “Experience and innocence bleed inside me/hallucinogens can open me or untie me”