100 Greatest Albums of the 90’s: #20

Massive Attack – Blue Lines
It’s my birthday so forgive me if this post is a bit sub-standard.

So much of the music from 1991 was about excess; listening to the charts was like walking across a golf course owned by a republican Texan. Everyone had money and was flaunting it. Even Vanilla Ice had money: one the 20th century’s great mysteries. The video for ‘Safe From Harm’ by Massive Attack opens with a shot of dead pigeon: this was the arrival of British urban music, and unlike what it is today, it was like breathing new air. New, smoky, stale, sweaty air. ‘Blue Lines’ is as laid back as it is uneasy. It’s like getting lying in a medication induced calm, listening to a burglary next door. Started by hip-hop fanatics, Massive Attack bleeds across into dub, soul, reggae and electronica, spawning what they now call “trip-hop”. This is a record where every tiny detail adds to the atmosphere; the brushing drums sounds like lighters being clicked while the basses evoke cigarette smoke rises in coiling spirals. A few details here and there have dated a little, but it mostly sounds streets ahead and if it was released today it would still be smart and original. The songs themselves are all great. ‘Safe From Harm’ is the perfect paranoid pop song with its coursing bass line and torch-lit keyboards, Shara Nelson painting a nervous picture of a walk home through a dangerous neighbourhood, Robert Del Naja playing her pursuer. It isn’t all anxious backwards glances though. Is there a song more optimistic on the human condition than ‘Hymn of the Big Wheel’? It has whale song in it for crying out loud! Even so, it’s absolutely lush, Horace Andy sounding like some all-loving God of the New Testament looking over his creation (conveniently ignoring mudslides, hurricanes, Michael Bay movies etc.). The rap tracks should be given some award for flowing so fluidly; a lyric like “Ex-communicated from the brotherhood of man to wander lonely as a puzzled anagram” sounds like it’s been carefully worked out and mechanically tweaked by a man in a white coat. The cover of William DeVaughn’s ‘Be Thankful For What You’ve Got’ is easily as relevant as the original and sounds like driving around in a rusty but comfortable Ford on a warm afternoon, tape deck loud. ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ still steals the show. It’s the album’s emotional and musical peak. Shara Nelson’s vocals sound troubled and burdened, but free and soaring, with that sumptuous backing of powerfully warm strings, edgy tinkles and distant “hey hey” vocals coming from a sinking ship. Even if the rest of ‘Blue Lines’ was garbage, ‘Unfinished Sympathy would be one of the best pop songs of the 20th Century. Lucky you, it’s all superb.
Listen to: Unfinished Sympathy

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