[The Guardian, 1998]
“It is,” observed one visitor to my flat, “a bit bloody gloomy, isn't it?” I had to agree. He might have meant the curtains being closed during daylight hours. And that probably didn't help. But I'm certain that he was referring to Mezzanine, an album so dark that it seems to soak up the light in the room like a miniature black hole. It was on the tape deck for the seventh (or eighth - ninth?) time and it wasn't getting any brighter.
The reason I've played it so many times is that I didn't want to make the same mistake I did with the last Massive Attack album. Bear in mind that when their first, Blue Lines, came out in 1991, it was so out and-out extraordinary, so shockingly different and brilliant, that hardly anyone noticed it was a hip hop revolution in itself, because hardly anyone recognised it as hip hop.
So when Protection arrived three years later - three years which gave the band's collaborator Tricky and their fellow Bristolians Portishead time to come up with their own shockingly different and brilliant albums - it seemed a little low-key. Well, it was. Which is why it took about two months in its company to realise it was sublime. The band had made a second masterpiece by daring to distance themselves from the first.
The Bristol triumvirate defined British rap and soul that year, gave them a completely original identity for the first time ever. But unlike jungle/drum & bass, which expanded into a vigorous scene where pioneers are continually eclipsed by their successors, these three acts remain unrivalled. Maybe it's because their supposed “Bristol sound” never became a grassroots dancefloor movement, It was mainly taken up by college poets and indie chancers who'd discovered it through the music press. Whatever the reason, in the four years since, ranks of pallid imitators have cheapened Massive Attack's idiom and debased their ideas. This leaves Massive Attack with a problem common to influential innovators: how do you avoid becoming no more than a superior version of everyone who mimics you?
Massive Attack are the last of the three to release another album since that Bristol sound went mainstream. Tricky reacted directly to the problem by making Pre-Millennium Tension, a record so confrontational and freakish that no one would have the brass balls to replicate it. Portishead simply ignored the problem and made another, very fine Portishead album. Massive Attack have sidestepped the problem by once again changing tack and coming up with another eye-poppingly distinct record.
The only thing the three follow-ups share is their mood: bleak. Tricky's was abrasively bleak, Portishead's starkly so. Mezzanine is gorgeously bleak. It succeeds where the entire Goth genre has so preposterously failed: it is a beautiful and in no way laughable or exaggerated meditation on disillusion, depression, death, decay and all the other big, bad d-words. If anything, it's gothic in the literary sense. It's certainly got a touch of the Edgar Allan Poes about it, and I intend that as very high praise indeed.
Right now, for example, I'm listening to Liz Fraser singing about the blossoming of black flowers, in a frail, clear voice stripped of all the lush Cocteau Twins effects that made her the 1980s floating candle poster girl. Despite the best efforts of The Chemical Brothers, Beth Orton and various fools with bagpipes, this song, Teardrop, is the first to marry electronic production and folk without one or the other filing for divorce before the honeymoon breakfast.
Not that Mezzanine is a club album in even the vague sense that the last two were. It sounds performed rather than programmed, and there's fuzz guitar all over the shop. Only a couple of tracks are resolutely digitized: Inertia Creeps; and the title track, which hint that Tricky is present in spirit if not in voice. The slumberous and faintly sinister closeness of the first Massive Attack single, Daydreaming, has morphed into rank, toxic claustrophobia. But they do it so well.
Mezzanine seems full of old themes with fangs and claws on. Horace Andy brings the faraway dub paranoia of his Spying Glass into disturbingly close focus on Man Next Door, and amplifies the devotional One Love into the obsessional Angel. The hushed, self-assured raps that core members Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall played out on Five Man Army and Karmacoma have turned thoroughly nasty on Black Milk, Inertia Creeps and Group 4 (“To think that I lay next to you, wasting time,” grieves Del Naja, and the fact that he murmurs rather than spits it is all the more unnerving.)
As Del Naja has pointed out, the feel of the album depends largely on the volume at which you play it. Set low, it worms its way glumly into the foreground. Turned up, it can be nothing short of brutal. If the sense of the album is that everything's wrong, then that feeling has rarely been more effectively expressed. Mezzanine really does take all those listens to fully appreciate it. By the time you're done, you'll be begging for the Happy Happy Joy Joy song from Ren & Stimpy. That or a litre of gin. But it'll be worth it.
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