What do the blueprints of musical slam dunks look like? Preconceived or spontaneous, soberly drafted at noon or snatched out of the charged air of midnight sessions: what is the level of detail, dimension, length? On “Young Hearts” (from Cappadonna’s recent The Pillage), producer RZA and Cappadonna design a synth line, loosed at the beginning of the track, that parades around the perimeter of the drumbeat, which in turn reaches up through the rap at rhythmic junctures to pound neon nails in the ceiling. When Bill Laswell, operating at symphonic duration, re-splices Miles Davis tapes on Panthalassa, he red-pencils any plans that fail to add strength and vibrancy to the main building; he sternly directs his gaze beyond interesting guest houses on the Davis property. And when producer Phil Thornalley arranges 1998’s most sublime pop groove on Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” it’s all about the facades: for the opening verses and choruses, he keeps the basses felt and murmuring, then has them wave up and punch Imbruglia’s bridge, like brightly painted new shutters mounted on old stone.
Even talking about the architectural foundations of sonic material is a slightly naughty thing. After all, go the hoary old lines, rockers communicate with distinguished lyrics, pop producers are always just well-compensated facilitators, audiences crave hominess and heart as desperately as they recoil from calculation and math–and say, didn’t serialist nerds empty concert music auditoriums after Schoenberg? Nevertheless, on Mezzanine, Bristol, England’s Massive Attack intentionally blur the blueprints and the juicy effects of musical slam dunks, achieving the current pinnacle of advanced sonic design. Here is a record actually grounded in architectural concepts applied to the funk, the symphonicism, the dub, even the trip-hop that people associate with Bristol’s unique beat magicians. The album scoffs at the notion that its compositional plans aren’t part and parcel of its messages or emotions or kicks. The work of a beat band who since 1988 have only rarely functioned as an ordinary band, preferring instead to remix and figure out their own ravishing contributions to ’90s pop and rock and hip-hop in studios, Massive Attack’s new music is so blindingly realized it refuses to be heard as hypothesis; the result is post-experiment jams pulled off with plush mentalism by DJ/musician/ producers ready for love.
Here is what does happen on Mezzanine: opening the album, veteran reggae king Horace Andy identifies a woman as his “Angel,” someone who can “neutralize every man in sight.” He croons to this effect, carefully and sensuously, as guitars from a drastically slowed-down Motorhead session rage around him, rhythms snap and break up and consolidate and suavely fade in and out, until this particular presentation basically has succeeded in making a humble bedroom seem like a cavernous airport. Andy, a civilized man ready to tear someone’s clothes off, repeats the words “love you” over and over, and the music turns it into a wind-tunnel of desire.
The next song, while without guitar, is nonetheless a variation on this eerie dance. “Risingson”–featuring only the alternating voices of Massive Attack’s Daddy Gee, 3D, and Mushroom–chronicles a party in a club from the point of view of an unappreciative guest. After various complaints get lodged against an awful moving glaze of fuzz and metal, everything breaks down into a high-contrast harmony-group voicing of the words “dream on.” This appears like an iron wrecking ball covered in velvet, swinging through the halls of the jam.
A gorgeously straight-singing Liz Fraser, casting off the Appalachian-Bulgarian affectations of her former Cocteau Twins affiliation, voices “Teardrop.” The song, with a midtempo groove reminiscent of poor television reception elaborately twisted, is about emotional responses you can see–like, as Fraser sings, teardrops falling on fire and feathers held afloat by breath. Her melody has a sad-toned medieval lift and sprightliness to it, but the way Massive Attack encase it conjures up a suit of armor displayed in the lobby of a postmodern office tower.
It’s these kinds of architectural contrasts that Massive Attack substitute on Mezzanine for the more unwavering concentration on regular groove and melody of Blue Lines (1991) and, in a slightly less direct way, Protection (1994), their great albums to which the world imputes the genesis of trip-hop. But as Massive Attack’s new music easily demonstrates, the trio’s modernist tone and ’70s-bred progressive ambitions were always more cool-headed than Tricky’s mad-genius skronk, more intelligently laid-back than Portishead’s hyperinformed dummy cabaret. As much as for their oddly toned beats and ’70s rock and punk borrowings floating in the still waters of dub, the trio have been known for aloof string arrangements, in front of which singers like Shara Nelson or Tracey Thorn testified with sweet tension. Now, with guitars instead of violins, Massive Attack argue that it’s not the elements of pop that matter, but the way one constructs them to arrive at fantasy and tragedy, dance and eros. Practitioners who choose not to hand over their visions and plans to outside contractors are known as “design and build” architects; although Massive Attack’s business cards would put it more elegantly, they’ve always been more like design-and-fuck architects.
A mezzanine, don’t forget, is a partial floor nestled between other full-standing stories in a building. That’s what Massive Attack’s third album is all about: creating the perfect impression of coherent stability and utter completion and existential trust, all of which a mezzanine accomplishes, when in fact a wall has been omitted. For example, the almost unbelievable title track here–a domestic tirade scored to sub-Indian motifs and Middle Eastern echoes–could not be any more effective had Massive Attack included a melody as detailed as “Exchange Part 2,” the Bacharachesque beauty that is their album’s hypnotic finale. On “Mezzanine,” when they finally chant, “I could be yours/We can unwind/All these other flaws,” they’ve built a house of attempted seduction and unbridled desire as convincing and undeniable as any traditional soul singer’s. It’s just that, with pop vanguardists, the blueprints remain part of the show.