Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”

Album cover for Massive Attack's "Blue Lines"

This week, I’ve been listening to Massive Attack’s 1991 debut album “Blue Lines” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. “Blue Lines” gets praise for it’s groundbreaking style opening the way for the genre of trip hop for the rest of the decade.I was completely unaware of Massive Attack throughout the 90s. In the early 2000s, I heard a bit of the 1998 album “Mezzanine,” but I honestly can’t say I remember anything about it.  I liked the atmosphere of other trip hop artists, especially Portishead. Somehow, a copy of Massive Attack member Tricky’s solo album “Pre-Millennium Tension” found its way into my collection and I enjoyed bits of it.

So, I was looking forward to my week with this album. Overall, this album was disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad, in fact some of it is quite good. I had expectations that it could not live up to.  To my ears today, it’s not remarkably interesting or special. I was anticipating something more like the trip hop that followed it, and really it’s hip-hop inspired pop music of the mid-90s. Perhaps what made it innovative was influential to other artists that took it further, making the original sound kind of quaint.

Like much hip-hop, the music of Massive Attack is largely sample-based. Though, as I understand, combining original music with samples was part of the innovation here. But even the SugarHill Gang was doing this back in 1979. The use of samples does not pose a problem for me, but I was disappointed to learn that the bassline from “Safe From Harm” is a sample from Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” which uses the bassline in much the same way. Massive Attack sample, one of the most sampled-artists, Funkadelic for drums.

The opening of the track with atmospheric noise and rolling bassline sounds super-cool. It reminds me of some of DJ Spooky’s (also sample-based) work “Galactic Funk” from 1996. I would assume that’s an example of me hearing the influenced before hearing the influencer. Stylish vocals float over the bassline, sung in a jazz-inflected soulful way by Shara Nelson. 

One of my favorite bits of the song are the male smooth-rapped line “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you.” They cut and manipulate this line to enhance the scratched-record feel already present in the lyrics.

The lyrics of this album frequently disappoint. I don’t know if I can condone mispronouncing “contagious” to make it rhyme with “dangerous” though. It reminds me too much of Jez’s song “Outrageous” from comedy show “Peep Show.” Also, this album provides reminders that if the listener can figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t spell it out. Like in the otherwise decent reggaeish track “One Love” when he says “They say don’t lay your eggs in one basket;
If the basket should fall all the eggs’ll be broken.” 

The smooth track “Blue Lines” features cool samples from Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. Some clean funky guitar comes from a song by The Blackbyrds. I recognize the Blackbyrds sample from several other hip hop songs around the same time. Again, the vocal are smooth rap delivered in an effortless way that contradicts much of the “spit” or harder-edge rap. Massive Attack often opt for cool over brag:

Somebody da-ditty, nobody
Walking on sunshine, but, still, we’re treading water
The son of many reasons searching for the daughter
Seeking knowledge, not acknowledging the jet-set
Silver papers of the sound within my Budakon headset
The solar system watches in wisdom
The children dance as the moonlight kissed them

The closing track “Hymn of the Big Wheel” features all original music, as far as I can find researching online. It stands also as one of the musically stronger songs. Pulsating synths provide a drone-like effect as heard in Indian or Scottish music. Over this, the vocals sing in a hymn-like melody lyrics that almost achieve what they try to do.  Again, there’s some disappointing lyrics. The line “There’s a hole in my soul like a cavity” seems rather redundant, considering “cavity” is a synonym for “hole.” Still, overall the song is a hymn, some of the best lyrics on the album.

As a child’s silent prayer my hope hides in disguise
While satellites and cameras watch from the skies
An acid drop of rain recycled from the sea
It washed away my shadow burnt a hole in me
And all the king’s men cannot put it back again
But the ghetto sun will nurture life
And mend my soul sometime againThe big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

While I enjoyed some of this album, I don’t feel I’ll be returning to it. Also, this isn’t a collection of songs I see having much influence on my own music. Still, glad I finally heard it and devoted a week getting to know it.

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