by SAMUEL HARRIS
English group Massive Attack enjoy a place in popular music as pioneers of and flagbearers for a genre that arose in the 90s and is sometimes labelled as “trip hop”, a meld of downbeat soul, hip hop and reggae.
They have always been reluctant to be seen as such, however, and a careful listener will see why.
Whereas the genre is seen to be characterised by a laidback, relaxed and relaxing atmosphere and sound — “stoner music”, to put one spin on it, “dinner party music” to put another — there has always been in Massive Attack’s lyrics and music a heavier, more tense dynamic. Even in their lightest tracks, as on their early-90s albums, this dynamic bubbles very near the surface or, indeed, seethes in plain sight as on 1998’s Mezzanine. Their January 2016 release, the EP Ritual Spirit, is no different.
Dead Editors begins the disc with an electronic swell and bleeps which have the ominous feel of a submarine in the deeps or an electrocardiogram in an ICU. These are joined soon by a muted beat as guest vocalist — Massive Attack have always made use of a wide and changing roster of vocalists — Roots Manuva begins to sing in a choked voice that cracks and catches at later points in the song in a pleasingly unpolished and raw manner.
Title track Ritual Spirit follows, featuring a haunting falsetto by London singersongwriter Azekel over a handclap beat, chimes and throbbing electronic sounds. “Who’ll mend this broke beat star / Whose strength do I speak of / Climbing deep burning,” he sings, as the song builds into a claustrophobic atmosphere of isolation and alienation. Dead Editors’ lyrics also lend a bleak tone: “. . . get back to the blackness / Up there out there / Wanna gonna be like stars . . . Messages in the mystery . . . We all search for some kind of truth / Hurt will make it inclined to be . . . Cool and pure with no hype.”
These clips of the songs’ lyrics won’t get across much thematic meaning, but even putting down here the songs in full would make them no easier to read.
Dance and electronic music, unlike perhaps rock or pop and certainly unlike folk or country, put sound well ahead of sense in their lyrics, and Massive Attack’s lyrics on this CD, as on others, are mostly wilfully gnomic. They are well open to various readings, but putting them together with what core members Grant Marshall and main songwriter Robert Del Naja have said in interviews, and the political and social causes with which Del Naja has aligned himself over the band’s career, key themes can be discerned.
Along with hints at environmental concerns, suspicion of governmental surveillance and of the way we use the internet — “The whole world is consumed by the internet and the internet consumes us . . . Wouldn’t it be nice if these utopian tech companies could save us? But that’s not likely to happen, so we’re all [stuffed]” — are more oblique themes: mystery, darkness, pain, isolation and paranoia, a search for meaning or for hope; shadowy ideas put to sombre music.
Main lyricist Del Naja is apparently an ex-Catholic who has said that religion “always causes damage”, but that the religion of his youth has “amazing” imagery. Del Naja is a painter as well as musician and his visual art incorporates clear Catholic themes.
Religious themes are less apparent in his lyrics, although hints are there: the title of this record, the third song with its references to voodoo, songs on other albums with titles like Pray for Rain and (Hymn of) the Big Wheel.
I’m always interested to see popular musicians explore Christian ideas in their lyrics, but find slim pickings here: Del Naja seems to have been content merely to make allusions to the richness of religion — to borrow a sense of weight or complexity? — without coming to grips with any specific idea.
The last two songs on the EP continue the bleak tone. Voodoo in My Blood features band of the moment Young Fathers and the unsettling lines, “Voodoo in my blood is living / . . . Why does blood always stick to your teeth” over a driving and restless beat with staccato vocals. Final track Take it There features original band member Tricky appearing on a Massive Attack recording for the first time since 1994. His rasping vocal alongside Del Naja’s murmur, over instrumentation which is a trademark mix of gritty and delicately beautiful, combine in something that sounds like it could be a love song, but for the underlying menace in lyric and voice.
Massive Attack have earned themselves a place in pop music’s canon with classic albums — Blue Lines and awardwinner Mezzanine foremost — and hit songs like Protection, Teardrop, Karmacoma and Inertia Creeps. Those first two tracks have a lightness amidst the exploration of shadows and will remain in my playlist, but Ritual Spirit’s bleakness, paranoia and embrace of darkness over hope mean I’m glad to see the back of it after this column. A long cool draught of Springsteen’s Live in Dublin went down well and set things back in balance as I hit “send”.
So, Massive Attack-land: an interesting place to pitch your tent for a bit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
by SAMUEL HARRIS