It’s not really hard to understand why Massive Attack‘s 100th Window was nearly universally critically ignored upon its’ release; compared to their ground-breaking and brilliant first, second, and third albums, 100th Window is extremely low-key, almost to the point of being subliminal.
A lot of it may also have to do with timing: the 3-4 year gaps between those releases saw countless imitators spring up, taking elements of the “Bristol Sound” (a sound pioneered largely by members of Massive Attack/Portishead and also referred to by it’s more popular moniker, “trip-hop”) and funneling it into more mainstream productions (see Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps, Cibo Matto, etc).
Still, there’s something to be said for being the original. Blue Lines spawned a genre in and of itself, and though this album may be a slight misstep in an otherwise exemplary canon, it’s nonetheless an extremely rewarding listen. Whereas previous Massive Attack releases veered between drugged-out, clubby reggae (1991’s Blue Lines), luminous, cinematic dub-soul (1994’s Protection) and clanking, industrialized grime-hop (1998’s Mezzanine), 100th Window unfurls slowly, unafraid to take slight stylistic detours and explore the more ethereal corners of their meticulously crafted sound-worlds.
Though a seemingly high rate of attrition has eventually reduced Massive Attack from its’ original four-piece incarnation to essentially a one-piece, the results are never jarring; indeed, 100th Window is smooth, almost slick, compared to the jagged edges of Mezzanine. The paranoia remains intact, but the buzzsaw guitars, menacing slo-mo raps, and pounding drums have been replaced by ambient synths, mantra-like vocals, and skittering electro beats.
As Massive Attack has always been seen as a sort of underground experimental hip-hop super-collective stuffed with memorable, larger-than-life MC’s (“Tricky,””Mushroom,” and “Daddy G,” respectively), you’d be forgiven for downplaying remaining member Robert “3D” Del Naja‘s contributions. Though arguably the most low-key member of the group, his starring turn at the microphone proves to be one of 100th’s Window‘s saving graces: no murmuring, monotone raps this time around; Del Naja actually sings on four of the album’s nine tracks.
Or maybe “singing” isn’t exactly the right word – Del Naja‘s vocals tend to be less about melodies than about atmosphere (similar to The Edge‘s vocal turn on U2‘s Zooropa-era single “Numb”). Nowhere is this better exemplified in “Small Time Shot Away,” a loping, nearly eight-minute slice of ambient electronica that pulses with medicated calm. Here, Del Naja‘s unique style of whisper-singing slowly wraps itself around your head like a mantra, or a run of thoughts – each small diversion in melody winding and looping its’ way into the next phrase. If Mezzanine was the sound of the machine grinding itself slowly apart, 100th Window is the calm, benumbed aftermath, picking through the pieces and puzzling over the artifacts left behind.
Another of the group’s strengths has always been their impeccable taste in guest vocalists – Tracey Thorn (from Everything But the Girl) on Protection, Elizabeth Fraser (from the Cocteau Twins) on Mezzanine. In keeping with tradition, 100th Window also sports an impressive array of guest vocalists; reggae legend/longtime Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy (who’s appeared on every release to date) lends his mysterious, child-like croon to two typically smooth tracks (“Everywhen” and “Name Taken”), while Sinead O’Connor is featured on two of the album’s best tracks.
A word on Ms. O’Connor: in light of all the head-shaving-pope-picture-ripping-political-protesting-I’m-a-lesbian-no-I’m-not lunacy, it’s easy to forget that she is, and always has been, one hell of a singer. Her three tracks on 100th Window prove this amply; “What Your Soul Sings” is gorgeous – an otherworldy ballad bathed in ambient hums, subtle clicks, and O’Connor‘s tremulous vocals. The powerful “A Prayer for England” is a tense and churning indictment against terrorism that features a slightly more aggressive vocal turn. It’s hard not to get chills when she solemnly intones “Let not another child be slain/Let not another search be made in vain.” For an artist known for her more confrontational work and flamboyant style, here she’s impressively nuanced, and frankly, quite stunning.
In all honesty, I’m a bit torn; conventional wisdom states Massive Attack blew their creative wad with Mezzanine (similar to My Bloody Valentine with Loveless), but a close listen to this album – and this is an album that begs to be listened to on headphones – will handily disprove that. Sure, it’s not another Mezzanine, but so what? It wasn’t intended to be. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend some time with it. (RIYL: Aphex Twin, Bark Psychosis, Laika)