The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, February 17, 2003
Considerations of 100th Window by Massive Attack

It is a grey and oppressively cold Sunday morning; the de-energising aura of late winter, the uncertain sort of day which compels you to go outside, just to stay warm. I – for there is no longer a “we,” simply an “I” – am coming to terms with what I saw yesterday and realise that I could not, until now, have written justly about 100th Window, the fourth studio album by what now goes under the name of Massive Attack – though it is really a solo album by Robert Del Naja, a.k.a. 3D. Then again, we remember that AMM stipulated that any minimum gathering of two members could count as “AMM” – be it Lou Gare and Eddie Prevost, swinging away like Sonny Rollins and Philly Joe Jones negotiating “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” or Keith Rowe and John Tilbury negotiating arcane electronica, radio samples and non-discrete pitches. It was whatever they wanted it to be, as long as the music still recognisably came from the AMM camp.

Thus, even though any trace of hip hop, or even the rapproachment with guitars from their previous record Mezzanine, has been largely wiped from the music with which we are presented on 100th Window, the mindset remains recognisably a Massive Attack mindset – and it’s a mindset which has suddenly been revealed as exceptionally pertinent to the mood of the world at this specific moment.

I don’t think I could have addressed this record properly without the events of yesterday still being fresh in my mind. After a few false starts, I eventually managed (only just) to get into Hyde Park. The grass, such as it was, had been largely transformed into mudflats. It is strange to be in the company of an estimated million people and still feel utterly isolated – not in a solipsistic way, but to the extent that, accompanied by the grey sky and the cold winds, it was easy to imagine that we were standing at the last frontier on Earth, the last outpost of sane humanity standing between the world and the abyss. Behind us, Knightsbridge surreally continued with its normal Saturday afternoon business, but for all it meant to us it could have been situated in a separate and very distant galaxy. In front of me, a strange semi-silence from crowds of people, most of whom would definitely have opted for the Boat Race back in 1990. It is of course far too early to pronounce Hyde Park yesterday a Turning Point In Our History - the effects of movements like this usually take some time to become truly apparent – but betrayal and bewilderment seemed to be the key emotions expressible here. Also, despite the generally cheery nature of the gathering, a seismically deep uncertainty which is now colouring everything we listen to or see, just because we’ve seen or heard them now – the pub apocalypse of Christopher Eccleston’s Christ wannabe in The Second Coming on TV last week, and now 100th Window.

So how good is the record? As I say, I’ve only lived with it for a week, but now, and especially now, it’s a record I want to listen to again and again, it’s a record which is speaking to me – and I suggest, by extension, to “us” – more than any other record of the moment, and already I think I can say that 100th Window is emphatically Massive Attack’s second great unqualified masterpiece, after Blue Lines. Protection was in places stunning, but in others disappointingly routine; Mezzanine still seems to me an immensely brave record which, if it doesn’t quite achieve the spatial and emotional consistency of Blue Lines (but then we forget that in 1991 we had not heard such a creative use of space in British soul music – a distant legacy from both the Pop Group and Martin Hannett’s work with Joy Division - nor rarely such music which managed to be simultaneously reclining and quietly threatening), nevertheless was adventurous in its deployment of Elizabeth Frazer’s voice and the redefining of its relationship with rock – I can’t think of anyone who has properly followed up the musical and societal implications of songs like “Teardrop” or “Black Milk.” But here – and admittedly it may be a direct effect of Del Naja’s (for now) control of the music – Massive Attack may have stumbled upon something new.

The cover (perhaps the unintended reverse of the cover design of Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels) depicts a glass sculpture of a human being which is fired at by remotely triggered camera devices and which shatters. Defrosting of an Ice Age? The actual realisation of the adage “fake cool image should be over” which Mick Hucknall has unwisely applied to his forthcoming – and not very good – album? Or 3D finally coming into 3D, at last free to say his piece?

The opening track “Future Proof” certainly begins as though it’s the smarter cousin of Kid A. An Aphex-like keyboard arpeggio is joined by a rhythm which sounds like Bush drumming his fingers, waiting for war to start. Angelo Bruschini’s guitar – and this is the only track on the album which has any explicit dealings with guitars – strikes a mournful refrain, somewhere between Hank Marvin and the Bill Frisell of Power Tools. Del Naja‘s vocals are ideal for this music; not at all straining to be “soulful” but rather quiet, uncertain, patient – he sounds like a heavily anaesthetised Mike Skinner. Bruschini’s guitar solo is set well back in the mix (the ghost of rock?) as Del Naja enunciates a series of lyrical lists/conundrums which aren’t that far away from those of Thom Yorke, but somehow here are more heartfelt (because he’s not trying to be “soulful” or deal in counterfeit emotionalism): “Borderline case/Reinforced glass/Absent friends/Passport photos an elastic past.” It’s Krapp’s Last Tape meeting Gary Numan via Mikey Foucault (“Another imprint/In borrowed clothes/We can be numb/Passing through”). It’s quite stunning in its sinister understatement (and Massive Attack have always been nonpareil at understatement).

Next we have the first of three tracks featuring Sinead O’Connor, all of which seem to me to be her most focused work for some time. In “What Your Soul Sings” she asks you to love yourself, but this isn’t the crassness of “The Greatest Love Of All” – she is, after all, asking you, not instructing you, and she is compassionate in doing so. The harp and string synths recall the utopia of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” but here their comfort is accompanying what in certain circumstances could sound like the last human alive on Earth. It is extraordinarily moving, as with so much of this record in general – all the more so because it never needs to raise its voice to make its point known and/or felt.

Next, on “Everywhen,” we have one of two tracks featuring the voice of Horace Andy. Or at least you eventually twig that it’s Horace Andy – never has he sounded so unlike himself, never has he sounded so much like Jimmy Scott in his asexual vibrato (of course he always did, but the way in which Del Naja has cast him here makes the connection much more apparent). He is singing more distended words which may form some kind of remote philosophy (“Everything you think you know/Blood ties – the sequence ends”). A keyboard intones like the bells of Ely Cathedral, faintly detectable in the middle of a blizzard.

“Special Cases” is the first single, and a distant cousin of the previous album’s “Rising Son” – beginning with a choral sample which could have come off OMD’s Architecture and Morality before it’s submerged beneath a never more assured bassline. Sinead sings again: “Check yourself for your own shit – and don’t be making out that it’s all his” but this isn’t “Stand By Your Man,” rather “Don’t Hate Men.” Easier preached than practised? The subtle entrance and consequent sudden ascension of the Eastern string lines remind us not to take anything for granted – a lesson which will be repeated several times during the course of this record, including the next track, “Butterfly Caught,” which begins with a dehumanised Del Naja vocal that transmogrifies into an incantation before a hissing, then punching, rhythm comes in. The vocal splits into two, one lagging half a beat behind the other in stoned abandon (“Pearly sunrise/Nearly worn/Kneeling like a supplicant/Darkened skin/Afraid to see/Radiate/Open lips/Keep smiling for me”). Ostensibly this may well be about sex, but with those Eastern string lines now making themselves more prominent, it’s hard to disagree with my fellow Uncut writer David Stubbs when he says that this album is “radioactive.” The foreboding is definitely of a post-9/11 variety; in this song it seems that the war has already happened – a lullaby for a burned, submissive skeleton.

(Incidentally, compare and contrast with “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” off the surprisingly good forthcoming debut album by the Appletons, in which sometime Massive Attack collaborator Marius De Vries is involved – it shadows this song extremely closely, and, although ostensibly about betrayal of love, it could be viewed as the “pop” flipside to what’s being proposed here)

The third Sinead song is “A Prayer For England.” Predictably (and nearly all reviewers have jumped the gun on this record) it has been dismissed and laughed at as drearily prosaic and hectoring (which usually translates as “Fuck off with your reality, stop spoiling our fun” – as though there were any fun to be had on this album). Certainly it’s the most palpable of these ten songs, the easiest for the listener to reach; an anthem against child abuse (“Let not another child be slain/Let not another search be made in vain”), and not the first one which Sinead has sung. But to me this song serves the same purpose as the equally derided “Within You, Without You” on Sgt Pepper, which, as Ian MacDonald has correctly pointed out, is the axis of reality around which the rest of the record revolves, and on which the flights of fancy of the rest of the record depend – so it is here: “A Prayer For England” is the “conscience” of 100th Window, without which the rest of the record would not be complete. And I have to say, standing in Hyde Park as I was yesterday with so many families, so many small children, so many prams, this song punctures me – it’s almost beyond punctum – in a way that it might not have done even a week ago. The message is simple; right now it’s a message which I believe a lot of people need to hear.

“Small Time Shot Away” progresses as a kind of tribute to Robert Wyatt (and there’s someone else I’d love to see working with Massive Attack); those organ(ic) keyboards, the tentative cymbals, an unbearably poignant chord sequence – but then Del Naja’s vocals are now vocoderised as he sings impassively about the slow decomposition of a loveless relationship. Eventually the music modifies into more abstract shapes, and the influence of Boards of Canada becomes extremely apparent (as is happening elsewhere). Starkly beautiful, hypnotic and absolutely terrifying in its ramifications.

“Name Taken” again features Horace Andy – another lullaby sung to the world in the expectation that it will wake up again. Generous in its compassion as in the brutality of what he’s singing about (“Fade away” sung as Noel Gallagher could never sing it – “Gunmetal sky/Peel away/Children play/Fade away”) as the strings weep behind him. Saturday afternoon in Hyde Park; it’s what everyone was thinking. What was that line about true love can conquer hate every time? Where the hell did that come from?

The last track. “Antistar.” As Oliver Hardy says at the climax of Trans-Global Underground’s Dream Of 100 Nations: “Now I see it all.” It begins with what sounds like a sampled oud, uncompromisingly Eastern in its melodic and structural approach. You realise that this was what UNKLE were unsuccessfully striving to articulate on Psycence Fiction.

“Can you lick my wounds please? Can you make it numb? Kill the pain, like cortisone?…Iconography fucks with me/You look great in bloodstains.” This is planets away from the easy exoticism of Timbaland, galaxies away from facile bleating about “lonely souls.” Hear how the harp which comforted us on “What Your Soul Sings” returns, as do elements of the rest of the album, all spinning backwards like a gigantic icepick. And, above all, hear how, at 4:20, the strings sweep back in and you are suddenly faced with the Earth; imagine you are in space, detached from your bombed tube train, flying high above everything, and for four minutes you can see everything, all the beauty, all the fucking mess which put you into space in the first place. And weirdly you do not suffocate or explode. Everything suddenly, but naturally, becomes clear.

Not yet do you suffocate or explode, anyway.

But then you realise that the world isn’t actually turning. It’s turned into a locked groove.

Which at 8:18 shuts off.

Before another, more quiescent electronic drone comes in; a blood circulation which can never end, which can never terminate. Life will go on somehow.

South-West London at Sunday lunchtime. No need to see it. You know instinctively that Hyde Park will resemble a semi-dismantled stage set…not very populated, but nothing even approaching dead. And now everything’s happening here. We might have the whole of the world at our disposal now; and there is so much we must do with it.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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