[ Universal Music / LP ]
Release Date: Friday 2 December 2016
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Debut album by English group Massive Attack, released on their Wild Bunch label through Virgin Records on 8 April 1991
In 1988, now-defunct style magazine The Face dispatched a reporter to meet the Wild Bunch, a group of Bristol DJs and rappers who were local legends thanks to their parties, both legal and illegal. For a collective teetering on the brink of extinction - they would split up just after the article came out, torn apart by constant bickering and their own disorganisation - they were in remarkably bullish mood. They claimed to have invented a whole new genre of music they called "minimalist lover's hip-hop". "We're originators," offered one unnamed member at the feature's close. "Put that in your magazine. Let's get some fucking respect around here."
It's the kind of thing hot new artists tend to say in interviews, but the Wild Bunch were telling the truth. They really were originators, on the verge of making two epochal albums: in 1989, Nellee Hooper produced Soul II Soul's Club Classics Vol. One; two years later five others piloted Massive Attack's debut, Blue Lines, which, if anything, was even more influential. And they had invented a new genre, but no one seemed terribly keen on calling it minimalist lover's hip-hop; much to Massive Attack's chagrin, the snappier trip-hop became the accepted term.
On its release, Blue Lines felt like nothing else: only a surprisingly faithful cover of William DeVaughan's Be Thankful for What You've Got sounded as if it could have been released on Talkin' Loud or Acid Jazz, record labels that specialized in retro soul. Now, 21 years on, beautifully remastered, Blue Lines still sounds unique, which is remarkable given how omnipresent trip-hop was to become: "Every time you switched on the TV, you thought, 'Oh God, there it is again,'" protested Massive Attack's Robert "3D" del Naja.
Blue Lines' uniqueness was a result not just of talent, but geography. Massive Attack's members weren't the first Britons to rap in their native accents, - Rodney P of the London Posse beat them to it by some years - but Adrian "Tricky" Thaws was certainly the first person to realise a West Country burr could communicate a kind of heavy-lidded, melancholy-streaked cool. But then, hip-hop had grown up rather oddly in Bristol, the result of the city's well-established reggae sound system culture and the lasting impact of its post-punk scene. The former's influence is all over Blue Lines, from veteran vocalist Horace Andy running through selections of his greatest hits - Skylarking, Money Money - in the background of Five Man Army to Grant "Daddy G" Marshall's Jamaican-accented MCing. But in truth, Blue Lines was as much a product of the latter: its sleeve placed PiL next to Studio One and Joe Gibbs in its list of inspirations. Bristolian post-punk was musically visionary and ahead of the curve - "They were pulled every which way by their passion for black music - they couldn't just settle on just reggae, or just funk, or just jazz, so they went full throttle for all three," wrote Simon Reynolds of the city's pivotal post-punk band the Pop Group circa 1978, which could just as easily be a description of the samples on Blue Lines - but it was twitchy and paranoid even by post-punk standards, possibly as a side-effect of the dense cloud of marijuana smoke much of it was produced in. So were Massive Attack.
Given it was the album that launched a thousand chill-out compilations, what's striking about Blue Lines is how resolutely unchilled out it feels. The dragging beats and sparse, scattered samples conjure up a stoned disquiet: Horace Andy and Shara Nelson's vocals feel aching and sorrowful. Underpinned by a restless, agitated bassline sampled from Billy Cobham's Stratus, opener Safe from Harm sounds dusky in the most literal sense. It captures the feeling of night falling on a city, but the song itself doesn't offer an invitation to go out and party: it's about shutting yourself away from a frightening world of "gunmen and maniacs". Del Naja's rap sounds weirdly anxious: "I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you".
It sets the album's mood. Blue Lines was released the same year as Primal Scream's Screamadelica and Saint Etienne's Fox Base Alpha, albums pie-eyed with the possibilities revealed by dance music and ecstasy, but nothing on Blue Lines feels euphoric, unless you count the cathartic swell of strings at the end of Unfinished Sympathy, a song whose sumptuousness and deserved ubiquity - it's frequently and rightfully lauded as perhaps the greatest British soul record ever made - tends to obscure its bleakness: its lyrics deal with an agonising unrequited love. By contrast, the lyrics of One Love hymn the pleasures of monogamy, but the music tells a different story: the beats are painfully slow, the sample from Isaac Hayes manipulates the work of 70s soul's premier loverman until it sounds queasy. Massive Attack's rappers had a tendency to undercut their bragging with admissions of isolation and depression: "No sunshine in my life because the way I deal is shady" or "excommunicated from the brotherhood of man, to wander lonely as a puzzled anagram" or "don't need another lover, I just need, I'm insecure".
You can see why people missed all this - for all its gloominess, Blue Lines sounds like an incredibly confident album, scarcely putting a foot wrong as it lopes off down its own path. But the darkness of Blue Lines would go on to consume at least some of the people who made it. In 2010, DJ Pete Tong was granted a restraining order against Shara Nelson, who claimed in court to be both his wife and the mother of his child. The same year, Claude "Willy Wee" Williams, the forgotten rapper who featured on Five Man Army, was jailed for armed robbery. In a different way, it also enveloped Massive Attack's subsequent career. Their albums got more forbidding and claustrophobic, while the old bickering continued: by 2005, only Del Naja and Horace Andy were left, although Marshall later rejoined. They continue to make remarkable music, perhaps because they never felt impelled to copy what they'd done on Blue Lines. Then again, as umpteen lesser producers found out, copying Blue Lines was impossible.
A1 Safe From Harm
A2 One Love
A3 Blue Lines
A4 Be Thankful For What You've Got
A5 Five Man Army
B1 Unfinished Sympathy
B4 Hymn Of The Big Wheel