The Good: Some decent vocals, Some intriguing lyrics, Musically interesting
The Bad: Some of the rhymes are a bit stale, Short
The Basics: Lyrically and aurally interesting, Blue Lines is a bit too self-referencing, but otherwise makes for decent trip-hop music.
The past few days, I have been getting a bit of a fix from the band Massive Attack. It's been a bad trip for me: the songs tend not to be like the lone song that made me intrigued with the group in the first place. As a result, I've been suffering quite a bit as I listen to my stereo with these albums on repeat throughout my days as I work.
But then, I got in Blue Lines, the first album by Massive Attack. At long last, I finally GET the band. I understand that Massive Attack is a band that pioneered "trip-hop," which is essentially hip-hop meets electronica/techno, but the other albums of theirs I've listened to have been sub-par mush. I've been sore because I started my musical study of Massive Attack with their "Best Of" album, which I bought and was thoroughly underwhelmed by. So, I've been going back to try to find how they managed to get as far as they did because five albums is no slouching career. Blue Lines finally makes it clear to me that the group is not without talent; they simply used that talent and went in a boring, disappointing direction. On Blue Lines, Massive Attack is interesting, vibrant and even has moments of articulation which are pretty decent.
With only nine tracks, clocking in at a slim 45:12, Blue Lines was the Massive Attack album that I came to without knowing any of the tracks from before my exploration of the band. Before I picked up Collected, I had been drawn in by the single “Protection” and the song "Teardrop" is the theme song to House, M.D. So, I knew and appreciated the least number of tracks coming in to Blue Lines and it's a much tighter album than the other Massive Attack outings I have heard. First, this album is mostly co-written by the men of Massive Attack, with only one track being written by someone not at all associated with the trio ("Be Thankful For What You've Got"). Massive Attack is credited with vocals on three of the tracks as well, which is not bad for an album by this group. It's still strange for me to listen to a band that contracts out for the singing. That's just weird as far as I'm concerned!
What's weirder on Blue Lines is that it is unclear what the band does other than co-write the songs. There are no credits in the liner notes for instrumentals or production. Moreover, none of the three members of the band are credited with any of the mixing. What exactly do the guys do, then, other than write and occasionally sing?! And what makes "Be Thankful For What You've Got" a Massive Attack album if they do none on there?!
Mostly, Blue Lines is a good album, though, with fairly decent lyrics. The obvious exception to this is "Five Man Army," which follows the insipid tradition of singers rapping about themselves with lines like, "A turbo turbo and chant with a charge / Addy, Daddy G wild bunch crew at large /Don't call me an officer just call me a sarge / Mashing up the country planning also abroad / Plan to go to America when I get a visa card." That's a pet peeve of mine, but also it shows a severe lack of imagination in my book, like bands that claim they are huge on their first album. When the best thing you have to sing about is the members of your own band, one suspects that you'll be singing to a rather limited audience. There's something about songs that are self-referencing that bugs me in exactly the same way as paying to see a movie in the theater and being bombarded with commercials (not previews, but actual commercials) beforehand.
As I said, most of the lyrics are better and the album opens with vocals by Shara Nelson on "Safe From Harm," a slow piece filled with longing that is actually astonishingly good. She is lends her soprano voice to the full weight of emotion behind the lines "Midnight ronkers / City slickers / Gunmen and maniacs / All will feature on the freakshow / And I can't do nothing 'bout that, no / But if you hurt what's mine / I'll sure as hell retaliate / You can free the world you can free my mind / Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight" ("Safe From Harm"). Unlike many Massive Attack songs, "Safe From Harm" has something it is trying to say and it is sung directly and clearly.
Another decent track by the lyrics is "Lately." The song tells an emotive story that resonates. Sung by Shara Nelson, the song tells the story of one who has been left and is feeling the separation. There is a fairly universal, reminiscing quality to the poetics, like "You been acting like a cat on a hot tin roof / Something's on your mind that you can't share / You never used to hide your feelings from me /Keepin secrets I don't understand / Lately baby where, where did we go wrong" ("Lately"). The rest of the song has a somewhat haunting and repetitive bassline that makes it hypnotic, but does not undermine the lyrics, which is decent.
When not singing, Massive Attack seems to be content to let Shara Nelson vocalize on Blue Lines. She appears on four tracks, lending her soprano voice to the produced instrumentals and basslines to offer real contrast. There is contrast, as well, from Horace Andy, who appears on three tracks, mostly to do rapping and his deep voice is interesting, even if some of the lyrics he raps are entirely inane.
Instrumentally, the songs on Blue Lines are also more interesting. "Unfinished Sympathy" has a great beat that is upbeat and obviously produced, but it is set wonderfully against a string orchestra that offers a wonderful, dancable sound. Indeed, it's hard not to listen to the song and rock a little in one's seat or get up and dance. As well, it has some pianos that come in and mix well with Shara Nelson's vocals.
As well, "Daydreaming" seems more like a classic Dance track and I suspect that Massive Attack had some crossover appeal in the clubs for that (not my scene, so I can't speak authoritatively to that). But "Daydreaming" and Blue Lines (the track) sound good as far as the instrumentals which are more electronica/techno than some of the other tracks.
Blue Lines shakes up the somewhat stale sounds of techno and hip hop and it is easy to see why Massive Attack got more albums after this one: they seem to have a talent for mixing tracks that have a beat and am interesting sound to them. It's too bad they took that potential and went the way they did.
The best track is "Safe From Harm," the low point is "Five Man Army."
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© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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