Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner
If you grew up as a music fan under the dominant sway of the music press during its three-four decade long heyday then you most likely know the desperate feeling that came from constantly reading about some hugely important influential record that, having been name dropped once too often, you were eventually forced to save up enough money to buy (yes, you read that right, you used to have to pay for music, which tended to really limit your options) and listen to over and over again – and that, after countless vain attempts to ‘get it’, to understand what all the fuss was about, you were forced to give up on and chalk up as a failure of imagination or music appreciation on your part. Actually it quite often turns out that years later, when you eventually return to such half digested masterpieces, that rather amazingly the pieces just seem to fall into place of their own accord without any additional effort on the part of the listener, maturity or a deeper appreciation of music in general having taken up the previous slack. For other records that never happens at all, ever, and you’re forced to conclude that either there’s some musical blind spot in your brain (and that maybe, possibly there’s a chance you just might get it in the end, on your deathbed maybe), or that the music press had in fact been actually selling you a massive pup all along. Ladies and gentlemen, Blue Lines by Massive Attack just happened to be exactly one of those personal bugbear records of mine. I mean I admired the album, and parts of it I really loved, but in the end and in spite of all that initial goodwill on my part, Blue Lines left me lukewarm.
You see I get how the record might have won over the critics in the early 90s, its relentless privileging of style and hip over soul and substance and its achingly sussed on point musical allusions/borrowings served as a potent weapon against the earnest rockism that was still characteristic of the alternative music scene back in the days. But the fact is that no amount of studied cool could make up for the essentially pedestrian quality of the music. Indeed, trip hop taken as a genre – and aside from a handful of notable exceptions like Portishead or DJ Krush – tends to sounds much less impressive than it did in the mid-90s. Because it really had an untouchable, hazy green aura, of mystique surrounding it back then. Albums like Dummy or Entroducing felt epochal, significant, like a promise of much more to come. But in the end it all proved to be one big anti climax – and all those cruel jibes about trip hop being a safe, sanitised version of rap/hip hop without all that stuff about thugs and guns and violence and bitches that you could play at nice dinner parties without offending your guests seemed not to have been so wide off the mark after all. I listen to those old trip hop records again now 20 years on and after having, rather critically, had the chance to hear many of the original dub, soul and reggae records that were formative influences on the genre and I can’t help but notice just how cumbersome and actually dated trip hop sounds in comparison.
All of which egotistical rambling finally brings us round to Mezzanine, Massive Attack’s third album: the one where the band started to expand on their sound, developing an earthier, more rock-oriented style, and softening some of the hard, blunt edges of their first two albums. I mean in theory it should appeal a lot more to my rather more organic sensibilities, but to me it just sounds a lot like probably the best beer commercial soundtrack music ever. I still find an immense depthlessness to their music, a horrible anodyne quality that lurks behind the immediate surface allure, of which admittedly there is plenty. Angel and Teardrop, the two that everyone knows from the album, are completely worn out from over familiarity, like a frazzled imitation persian rug — and really I can’t even begin to separate out the music from its role as the incidental music or as the inspiration for the incidental music in a thousand different adverts or television productions. The images and visual symbols, the products, and the music all bleed into one another, one great trite miasma. Worse still whenever I listen to Mezzanine and start to really get into it, I reflexively think of where I’ve heard the same thing done better or where it’s felt far more genuine. There are, as always with Massive Attack, exceptions: moments when they triumph over their musical limitations, Risingson being one obvious highlight, although there are fewer of these than on Blue Lines. But (to my most alas) I still don’t get it; I just can’t overcome my by now decades long resistance to the group (6/10).