Massive Attack - Mezzanine
AS CHILDREN, WE ARE ADVISED that with age and experience comes wisdom and wit. Not to mention self-possession and the ability to adjust comfortably to life's troublesome gradients. But listening to the third album by Massive Attack, a record which isn't so much difficult as dread with unease, one feels that getting older is not what it used to be. Whatever the men known as 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom get up to during the years which traditionally separate their releases, it doesn't sound like they're necessarily having a good time all the time.
Or if they are, 'Mezzanine' is the hangover from hell. The title alludes to dislocation, a place which is neither one thing or another, and each of the album's ten tracks (one of which, the instrumental 'Exchange', is reprised) more or less ponder the psychic implications thereof. Massive Attack's music has bleakened quite markedly since 1994's 'Protection'. If that album was a studio-bound reappraisal of 'Blue Lines''s melancholic sound-system soul - and, as a consequence, perhaps too pristine to consistently engage one's emotions - 'Mezzanine' is densely orchestrated with (apparently) live guitars and drums, while positively aching with the latest refinements to Massive's sample armoury and their essentially punk approach to electro technology. Trap yourself in a darkened room with the title track, wonder at the unravelling mania - minor-key horn stabs, beats like the sickly put-put of silenced gunshots, the moaning of what sounds like a wounded animal, all enveloping 3D's septic whisper like a pool of quicksand - and you're bound to conclude it's amazing Massive Attack make as many records as they do. Being so close to this stuff simply can't be healthy.
There are four other similarly wrought masterpieces on 'Mezzanine', all breathtaking exercises in sonic engineering, which ensure the album as a whole transcends its flaws. For flaws there are, few but significant, and they arise chiefly because the core trio seem too eager to indulge outside collaborators who happen to be a lot less interesting than themselves. So while Liz Fraser's honeydunked larynx is a joy to behold on 'Tear Drop' (melodically evocative of 'Protection'), spread over the six minutes of somnolent grooving and not much else that is 'Black Milk', the effect palls quickly. At a push, 'Dissolved Girl' is even worse: Sara Jay waves the trad tortured torch around in a serviceable but uninspiring stylee ("pain", "passion", the usual Gibbons), while chain-gang beats and generic grunge geetar mewling conspire to effect the most (the only?) clichd piece of work ever to bear the Massive imprint. As for 'Man Next Door', Horace Andy's nod to Jamaican contemporary John Holt, the good vibes are impeccably good and vibey, but hardly compelling.
Yet when Del Naja, Marshall and Vowles propel their own personalities to the fore, the tension is palpable. Superficially, opener 'Angel' is another Andy vehicle, but this time the veteran crooner's inimitable falsetto conveys the paranoid thought processes of a person dangerously and obsessively in love. The backing track is pure malevolence, crescendoing to a circular guitar wall over which lies no escape, only disorientation and discomfort. 'Risingson' follows, its awesome hallucinogenic force familiar from its release last year, but no less potent. It's the quintessence of 'Mezzanine', yet at least as good is 'Inertia Creeps': insistent drums, slivery Eastern textures and 3D fidgeting in his mind for some kind of domestic peace, only to find that, "Inertia keeps moving up slowly/Inertia creeps/Moving up slowly". He retreats to bed - "There'll be no sound in my eiderdown" - but finds no respite. The track ends with Del Naja repeating, "She comes", over and over, without resolution. It's hard to think of another band since Joy Division with such an aptitude for articulating the despair that lurks at the very heart of darkness.
On the epic 'Group Four', Massive Attack successfully flaunt their ambition by effectively fusing two decent songs to make one great one. In the first part 3D mutters about the surreal miseries afforded by a career as a night watchman, while Liz Fraser warbles in orbit around a nearby black hole. Then, just as routine threatens to intrude, Massive turn into PiL, as glacial guitars and motorik beats decimate the previously delicate edifice. Scary. But sort of fun, too.
You can't say this is unprecedented stuff, but only because Massive Attack and their former protg Tricky have impacted indelibly all across the contemporary gene-pool, from the magnificent Arab Strap to the good but overrated Radiohead, as well as a desultory stream of trip-hop nonentities. Where the latter fail is in their lack of emotional integrity. Massive Attack, on the other hand, can't keep away from the furnace. Inevitably, it gets painful. "Why don't you close your eyes and reinvent me?" invites 3D on that miasmic, magnificent title track, to which Daddy G ripostes, "You know you got that heart made of stone/You could have let me know".
The hurt in Grant Marshall's voice feels real, uncontrived. In fact, it just feels, end-of-story. That's ultimately what 'Mezzanine' is all about, and why Massive Attack are perhaps the greatest English group of the past ten years.