t’s been fifteen years since Shara Nelson walked around that city block. Jesus. Fifteen years of Massive Attack—longer; the soundsystem that eventually went on to produce Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine, and 100th Window had been pumping around Bristol for years before then. Twenty years of Massive Attack? Not far short. They’ve been making music for as long as I’ve been in love with music. I played “Karmacoma” in the sixth form common room a decade ago and was told it was boring. I paid no heed. I listened to them when I was 15 and I’ll be listening to them when I’m 27 in a few weeks.
Massive Attack’s achievements, despite their molasses pace, are profound, justly recognised and deeply etched across British culture. No Massive Attack in all probability equals no Portishead, no Neneh Cherry, no Goldie, no Streets, no Roots Manuva, no M.I.A..
What perhaps isn’t recognised, certainly not as much as it should be, is that Massive (as they were known for a period during the first Gulf war when the “Attack” suffix was deemed unpalatable) have quietly and arguably been Britain’s most political band for much of their two decades together. It goes beyond the multi-racial backgrounds of the band members and collaborators themselves, into a subtle and continued air of disaffection with British government and society that is expressed explicitly at various and repeated junctures—“Karmacoma” is a twisted love song, a paean to weed, and an anti-capitalist whisper with direct references to Kuwait for instance. A decade later and Sinead O’Conner and Robert Del Naja were weaving (occasionally slightly wince-worthy) political messages through 100th Window, yet Massive have never been thought of as a political band in the way that, say, Manic Street Preachers have. Their politics have always been darker, more insidious, more personal. More like real politics.
Compare the tracks from 1991’s Blue Lines which are included on Collected with similarly vintaged material from their contemporaries, and Massive come out on top easily. The miraculous, one-shot video for the Shara Nelson-sung “Unfinished Sympathy” bleeds perfection almost as much as the song itself, the jolting stabs of sub-bass swathed in street ambience that begin the track, Shara’s unequalled, bitterness-drenched-in-honey charms, the plaintive lamentation of the strings, and the gently kinetic rhythm. By contrast Screamadelica, groundbreaking at the time, is beginning to date and fade into the territory of rose-tinted recollection.
Likewise the extraordinary vocal and sonic interplay of “Five Man Army,” Tricky, 3D and Daddy G intertwining sinister lines while Horace Andy soars over them like, well, a skylark, the song a journey through prostitution, soundsystem culture, and a brief history of radio that culminates in a delirious cliché, “Money money money / Root of all evil,” delivered ecstatically by Andy. It’s fifteen years old now but still sounds absolute staggering and utterly contemporary.
Extraordinarily, they got better. Protection is an underrated dub-pop gem, Tracey Thorn’s vocals colder than Shara Nelson’s but no less evocative, and by Mezzanine they had become an undeniable force; the claustrophobic sex of “Inertia Creeps” and the oppressive paranoia of “Risingson” highlighted by the crushing beauty of “Angel” (Horace Andy again sublime) and “Teardrop,” which saw Massive Attack build a suitable platform for the heavenly larynx of Liz Fraser. 100th Window was perhaps a step too far into cinematic ambient dub for some fans, but the evocative textures of “Future Proof” are still jaw-dropping.
“Live With Me” is the token new inclusion, a return to string-laden nu-soul that still maintains a sinister bite, voiced by Terry Callier with glorious effectiveness. One could argue that it retreads old territory, but that misses the point—Massive Attack have always sounded the same and always sounded different. Their new album is due in early 2007.
There are omissions, obviously, and ones which could cause more consternation than you might expect because this is not a straight singles compilation, and thus content is up for debate—“Hymn of the Big Wheel” from Blue Lines, “Better Things” from Protection, and “Black Milk” from Mezzanine are all as worthy of inclusion as anything here, and overlooking “Special Cases,” the lead single from 100th Window, seems churlish—but the essence of Massive Attack is undoubtedly here, the songs people will know and love, augmented by lesser-known material that maintains quality control superlatively. Even if some of the later songs don’t match earlier efforts lyrically, melodically, or tunefully, the attention to sonic detail and depth is always absolutely first class, whether the group is building upwards from dubplates, lashing savage metallic guitars or beatific string arrangements over their exquisitely detailed electronic soundscapes.
The limited edition version of Collected is a lavishly-packaged affair which adds a bonus disc, one side of which is a CD containing a slew of rarities and soundtrack work. The other side is a DVD of the group’s always excellent music videos, and this inclusion transcends Collected from being an excellent but inessential “best of,” to being thoroughly awesome. You should already own most of these songs, but that’s no excuse not to own them again.