The Good: A few decent songs, Musically interesting, More creative than most Massive Attack albums
The Bad: A lot of the same type pieces, More vague than engaging.
The Basics: All right, but not great, 100th Window gives Massive Attack a more profound female voice to lead the best songs.
It is official; now that I have made my way through the entire album discography of Massive Attack, I feel confident in saying I am not a fan. It is strange that I mention this at the beginning of my review to 100th Window, a Massive Attack album that solves the problems of many of the other albums by the group. Instead of being bass-driven and closer to rap/hip-hop, 100th Window explores the electronica side of trip-hop with most of the vocals driven by Sinead O'Connor.
In some of my other reviews, I have compared Massive Attack to Moby, mostly because the potentially more apt comparison to Bjork is one I am hesitant to make because of my loathing for her incomprehensible musical experiments. Moby might be a more apt comparison if for no other reason than the music on 100th Window is actually musical and illustrates a strong sense of surrealism and mood. It is, perhaps, best likened to the tracks on the Moby album Play: The B-sides (reviewed here!).
With only nine tracks, clocking in at 73:59, 100th Window represents the musical vision of Robert Del Naja. Of the original trio that made Massive Attack, only Del Naja returns for this album. To his credit, though he wrote all nine songs and produced the album as well. In addition to arranging the strings, he also provides some vocals on the album. Whatever else one might suggest about the album, it does seem Robert Del Naja was granted a remarkable amount of control to explore music creatively or as creatively as he sought to.
The result is an album that has an orchestral and electronic sound to it, with virtually every track blending into a murky, consistent bassline that combines synthesizers, bass and drums with violins, traditional pianos and additional production elements. 100th Window sounds like mood music for the background of a murky club scene film. The vocals are secondary to the sound and feel of the album, which are slow, mellow and indistinct. Unlike the worst of Massive Attack, though, the indistinct quality leads to a buzzed, submerged feeling as opposed to the sense of utter boredom.
When the lyrics break through, which they tend to do best with Sinead O'Connor's vocals, it seems Massive Attack has something to say. The poetics tend to be invocations to open to feeling the full range of human emotions. For example, on "What Your Soul Sings," O'Connor clearly vocalizes "Don't be afraid / Open your mouth and say / Say what your soul sings to u / Your mind can never change / Unless u ask it to / Lovingly re-arrange / The thoughts that make u blue / So make your choice joy / The Joy belongs to u." The rhyme scheme might be simple, but it is better than a song about wasting life or accepting the fate of being a loser. Instead, the melodic tune invokes a feeling of passion for life and a commitment to turn away from darkness and doubt. As they say, that's all good.
Similarly, "A Prayer For England" is a fairly direct song of hope, leading the listener to believe that no matter what else one might think about Massive Attack, Del Naja's version of it is at the very least hopeful for the future. Sadly, the self-help version of Massive Attack is somewhat more limited on tracks like "Special Cases." The Massive Attack simplicity of human relationships is reduced to "Don't tell your man what he don't do right / Nor tell him all the things / That make you cry / But check yourself for your own shit / And don't be making out that it's all his . . ." ("Special Cases"). Much of the album is plagued by such oversimplifications, that one can simply change their mind as easily as the blinking of the eyes.
Lyrically, though, Massive Attack might well reach its poetic zenith on the album's final track, "Antistar." On that song, Del Naja manages to create some striking visuals with lines like ". . . Blind / Me with flashbulbs / And puzzle me with syllables / Back to sleep . . . More sweet nacrossis . . . U can shoot me hurricanes / don't spare me the details" ("Antistar"). It is a strong set of deep, moody lines that form an intriguing picture for analysis and, perhaps the worse aspect of it is that the vocals are almost entirely sublimated by the instrumentals, which include a surprisingly direct guitar riff. The writing, though, is far more meaningful than on some Massive Attack albums and rather pleasantly is not self-referential in the way the band has been at times.
Vocally, 100th Window is a blend of voices between Sinead O'Connor, Robert Del Naja and Horace Andy (though which tracks belong to which male vocalist is not clear on the liner notes). O'Connor gets three solid tracks of her own to sing on and her vocals are the clearest and most powerful on the album when she sings "What Your Soul Sings," "Special Cases," and "A Prayer For England." Most of the vocals are around the same volume level as the instrumentals, making them difficult to hear and understand.
The hyperbole of this is on "Butterfly Caught," which processes the vocals through a production element that makes the entire thing sound computerized. It is musical - to be fair - but it is hardly understandable. As a result, most of the tracks blend together somewhat anonymously with the vocals simplistically bleeding into one another with nothing terribly distinct or noteworthy.
Similarly, the instrumentals are instantly more creative than 90% of pop-rock music. The blend of synths and strings creates a wonderfully subdued but intense mood for the listener. The problem is that all of the songs on 100th Window share the same mood, so they sound alike and melt together in a way that leaves one wondering just what they have actually heard when they play the album over and over again.
That might as well be the death knell of Massive Attack, at least for me; when they aren't being thuggish and loud, they are being dull and creative within such a limited niche as to be boring. 100th Window is an excellent example of both their strengths and weaknesses in this regard. Ultimately, though, it's too much of a liability for me.
The best track is "What Your Soul Sings," the low point is "Everywhen" for no other reason than after listening to this album more than nine times, I can't for the life of me remember how that tracks sounds or what it said.
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© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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