ScanS → NME Magazine Review #1
Publication Date: September 1994
Protection (Wild Bunch/All formats) EVERY SONG that Massive Attack touch turns blue. This is something that 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G recognised in calling ’91’s epoch-defining debut ‘Blue Lines’. They knew that they were cut from the same cloth as Dexy’s, EEK-A-Mousef Rakim, Billie Holiday or The Specials: cursed folk who recognised that even though there’s a rhythmic wiggle in their walk, they’re basically glum.
So it’s no surprise that their second chapter starts with a funereal backbeat, a mournful guitar chop and Tracey Thorn. And while it certainly isn’t the dramatic lane-switch that the trio would have you believe, they do occasionally scuttle into the middle of the road. Hence, some of it sounds like people succumbing to creeping gin and spliff psychosis, yet other parts sound – less predictably – like a rainy night in Belgium. Once again, however, they’ve painted a beautiful record from many shades of blue.
And along the way it defines a sound that is completely unrelated to the USA, a Euro-soul that draws outside inspiration from Jamaica alone. That’s the link between ‘Blue Lines’ and ‘Protection': there’s a train of musical thought being extended here. Though they may differ in texture it’s clear that – as with the first two Soul II Soul albums – the two records are brethren.
Shara Nelson’s out, replaced by Ms Thorn and Nigerian chanteuse Nicolette (if you merged their two voices you’d probably end up with Nelson anyway), while Horace, Andy and Tricky remain on the bench to handle vocal responsibilities when required. Andy’s contribution is the weakest of the guests, not because his singing is anything less than fine, but because the choice of his material is so lazy.
His first effort, ‘Spying Glass’, is a near-identical reproduction of a version he released over a decade ago on ‘Dancehall Style’, only here the spiky, treble-heavy sound of the original has been dulled in favour of a ’90s bass thud. His other contribution is a live reggae dancehall version of The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ that makes sense in a stoned-in-the-studio-at-5am kind of way, but that belongs at the arse-end of a single, not the finale of their first album for three years.
Tracey Thorn’s contributions, however, are inspired. Not only does she fire off some of the best lines aboard during the sweet, mournful reggae of her two visits here -‘Better Things’ and ‘Protection’ – but she’s finally serviced with the kind of musical backing her rich voice deserves. As the title track drifts off on puffs of electronic smoke. Everything But The Girl seems like an even more depressing place to shop in future.
Nicolette, formerly best known for her work as a 16-year-old with Shut Up And Dance, also puts another group’s livelihood in jeopardy with her two off-kilter spots. This time it’s Saint Etienne, who must ponder on how they can compete in the torch-song stakes when these part-timers perform the same trick with so much more aplomb. ‘Sly’ sounds like an audience between Cleopatra and Lucifer: it’s breathtaking in an ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ stylee.
And then, of course, there’s 3D and Tricky, the masters of understated hip-hop dialogue. Their two workouts, the staggering swagger of ‘Karmacoma’ and the soft rollercoaster ‘Eurochild’, are the two highlights in a collection of occasionally jaw-dropping compositions. No-one else sounds remotely like the two of them in full flow – and the backing tracks are a strange and luxurious mix of Eric B and Fun Boy Three (yep, that’s ‘Karmacoma”s lineage). Tricky’s solo album will be some treat.
Obviously trying to line up an alternative career in detective soundtracks, MA take a strange diversion with two instrumentals, ‘Weather Storm’ and ‘Heat Miser’. Imagine a lonely, middle-aged guy – fond of the bottle and devoted to his job – driving down a dark, rainy motorway trying to piece a complicated case together and you’ve glimpsed these tracks’ ambience. Rolling pianos, soft handclaps and a quiet little bass noodle: odd and very grown-up, but cinematically sexy.
In 1991, NME asked how on earth Massive Attack could follow-up their epic debut when marking it as a (10). The answer is that they’ve simply taken the same equation through to a new conclusion. Glitches aside, this is a sleek triumph of imagination over sloth. Dim the lights and enjoy.
Written By Ted Kessler