Thursday, September 20, 2007

[065] Blue Lines

Album: Blue Lines
Artist: Massive Attack
Release Date: August 1991
Label: Circa/Virgin
Producers: Massive Attack, with Jonny Dollar

"Way that we say 'em in style that we write 'em in
Massive attack we keep it strong just like a vitamin"
- from "Daydreaming"

I had this whole mental outline of how I wanted to approach this album, talking about the uncertainty of the music landscape in 1990, a time of disparate styles where Violator and "Been Caught Stealing" butted up against Vanilla Ice and "We Didn't Start The Fire", plus the globalization of Hip-Hop and club culture, and how Blue Lines was a reaction to all that. But my life dictated what I was going to say about this album. Admittedly, I'm kind of stressed out lately. I'm losing a lot of sleep. I'm irritable more than I'd like to be. It's just life, really. Despite that, I had a really good day yesterday - I got tickets for the super-limited Foo Fighters show in NYC tonight, and I aced my annual review at work & got a raise. But when I got home, I passed out, and woke up late to meet my friend; I ended up almost flipping my jeep and dying cuz I was driving like a maniac. Massive Attack saved my life. If I wasn't listening to Blue Lines in my car last night, then I would've stayed wound up and cranky, and I would've stayed driving like a bat out of hell, and I'd probably be writing this from the ICU.

Blue Lines is all about surviving the everyday. Curtis Mayfield sang about "tryin' to get over", and Massive Attack sang about being "safe from harm" and being "thankful for what you've got" (though the latter is a cover). The two most iconic music videos from the album, "Harm" and "Unfinished Sympathy", attempt to illustrate that the black inner city is not a solely American construct. Likewise, when you dig a little and read into the lyrics, you realize that the album had to be made on a working class level; this couldn't have been their fourth album, it even comes through like they're just happy that Horace Andy said 'yes' to being on their album. If you look up 'naiveté' in the dictionary, one of the definitions is, "Natural and artless simplicity". That's Blue Lines; I'd imagine this would come from the pure excitement of creation. Like many debuts, Blue Lines is a hodgepodge of influences - ganja definitely influenced the vibe - but for the world at large, some of Massive Attack's influences were largely fresh. Hip-Hop was just starting to find its footing, commercially, in the US at the dawn of the 90's, so imagine how new it was to UK ears; super-collide that with the emerging euro-dance-pop of the time, the big name in this case being Soul II Soul. In America, they're generally dismissed as a one-hit wonder ("Back To Life"), but Soul II Soul were revolutionary in the UK, and Massive followed them at just the right time with a well-timed classic album. Their use of smoked-out dub with their own brand of Hip-Hop was, at the time, completely singular - "The Bristol Sound". Of course, all these years later, you know it as Trip-Hop, but there's little here of that eventual box, though this album basically built the box. 3D, Daddy G, and Tricky didn't try to copy American MC's. They had their own style; in comparison to the bombast of Run-DMC, Massive is whispering. They ride more low-key beats; even over a tribal beat, the first single "Daydreaming" still feels breezy. The jazzy groove and mournful Rhodes piano of the title track echoes what the Native Tongues posse was working on at the time. "Five Man Army" is the best, toasting the Al Green rimshot break from Rakim's "Mahogany" (and later, Biggie's "Dead Wrong" and "I've Got a Story To Tell") in the dub oven.

Now I want you to do me a favor - name a classic R&B album from the 1980's...
...You can't do it, can you? If you said Thriller or anything by Prince, that would be wrong because those albums are Pop. There are some good ones (like Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel) but no great ones; the only answer I could come up with is Janet Jackson's Control, but that's pushing it, because that's almost as pop as her brother. Soul music went and hibernated in the 80's. And the "Rap & Bullshit" hybrid (see: R. Kelly) that so many rappers dissed in the early 90's was a poor excuse that happened to take off. So in these dark times, you had to take what you could get, and in that way, Blue Lines was a perfect fit. Through the thick dub bass and breakbeats, the majority of the songs are Soul songs, as they say, the way they used to make them. This is largely due to the presence of Shara Nelson. This woman is the greatest R&B singer you've never heard. Let's put it this way - after this album, in the UK, they were screaming "the next Aretha!!" That's a tall claim, but if you heard "Unfinished Sympathy" in 1991, then you'd say the same thing; the Brits still consider it among the best songs of all time. I don't think Americans now can understand the masterstroke this song was at the time. It sounded like nothing else, on the album or on the charts. Nelson's vocal is so pure, and strings so powerful, it bowls you over; the swelling strings at 3:20 blow my brains right out of my head every single time. You could slam as many club breaks on the thing as you want, this is a fuckin' Soul song to the core, and Nelson's vocals extend that through the rest of the record; with it's summertime bump, "Lately" could've been a hit in the US, while "Safe From Harm" is dripping with the blues. Over one of the most killer basslines of all time, Nelson warns "If you hurt what's mine, I'll sure as hell retaliate", and the way she delivers it, it's one of the greatest lines in the history of music. Horace Andy is great on the album, but he continued to evolve with and merge into Massive's music, so his contributions to Mezzanine resonate more. So it's really Nelson who makes Blue Lines. She pleads on "Sympathy", "How can you have a day without a night?" That's sometimes how I feel writing this blog; my days bleed into each other, and my brain runs in the red all the time. Her voice, that lyric, filled my soul with calm and understanding. Thanks Massive Attack, for saving my life last night.

01. "Safe From Harm" [feat. Shara Nelson]
02. "One Love" [feat. Horace Andy]
03. "Blue Lines" [feat. Tricky]
04. "Be Thankful For What You've Got" [feat. Tony Bryan]
05. "Five Man Army" [feat. Tricky & Horace Andy]
06. "Unfinished Sympathy" [feat. Shara Nelson]
07. "Daydreaming" [feat. Tricky & Shara Nelson]
08. "Lately" [feat. Shara Nelson]
09. "Hymn Of The Big Wheel" [feat. Horace Andy]

"Safe From Harm" [single mix - video]

"Unfinished Sympathy" [video]

- BONUS: "Daydreaming" [video]
- BONUS: "Hymn Of The Big Wheel" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Be Thankful For What You've Got" [video]

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