Lately, I realized that my initial indifference to this album stemmed from two things: two of these tracks are like those kids who went through puberty before the rest of their class; the guys were a head taller than the rest of their gender, or the women had developed these curves that would help perpetuate the puberty of everyone around them (what I mean is they stand out rather obviously) and that I had decided, like many other albums that came out from 90-91, people respected Blue Lines for its seminal quality, rather than, you know, the musical quality.
The first thing you need to know about Blue Lines is that “Unfinished Sympathy” is fucking huge (on an unrelated note, I’ve spent a good year thinking it was titled “Unfinished Symphony”…one of those Jeff Magnum/Mangum situations all over again, though in this case, the correct spelling is cooler). The insistent beat that opens the track, especially when you consider the less beat-oriented tracks that surround it, immediately suggests something big is on the way, and the false vocal start, a male grunt that’s immediately shushed (think Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind???”) and the brief scratch just add to this effect. Then, seven seconds into the song, it suddenly explodes into one of the most cinematic adventures that music has to offer. Shara Nelson brings the track to another level, but as opposed to say, Clare Torry’s (great) vocal performance on “The Great Gig in the Sky” (the best thing Pink Floyd has to offer), Massive Attack aren’t sitting idle in the background; those drums are just as catchy as Nelson’s “HEY HEY HEY HEY”’s, and the thunderous bass that first appears is quickly replaced by grand, sweeping strings what sounds like it was produced by several hundred players (probably just a laptop).
The only other track on the album that is on the same level of “Unfinished Sympathy” in terms of epic-ness (not a word I use lightly, because screaming legions of video game players have reduced it to a joke) is opener “Safe From Harm.” It’s the perfect sample of what the album is on a whole, and thus, makes for a perfect opener, combining the soul vocals of “Unfinished Sympathy” with the UK hip-hop of “Blue Lines.” Every track that follows is simply either one or the other, or another combination of the two that tries to be “Safe From Harm” but isn’t. Both the vocals of the song are so different from one another, but lock into each other perfectly, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Every line here is catchy, so catchy that you automatically forgive the nonsense of 3-D’s rapping, the way he unashamedly manipulates words to force them into rhymes, “Terious, terious, terious, infectious and dangerous / Friends and enemies find us cantagerious.” And don’t scrutinize the looking back mantra too much, “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me / To see me looking back at you,” because on examination, it means they’ve got to be on a really small spherical plane. Does it matter? No, because you’ll find yourself rapping along the second time around. Meanwhile, like “Unfinished Sympathy,” Nelson destroys her performance, “Just as long as my baby’s safe from harm tonight,” her voice launching with the last word and lingering in the air.
Based on those two tracks, one really has to wonder why she wasn’t elected to sing on the entire album. In fact, Horace Andy sometimes actively bothers me; while back then, his distinctive vocal style might’ve been interesting, sometimes the way he cuts his voice (see “One Love”’s hook) is actively annoying, and has been adopted by numerous acts since (see the Dirty Projectors). Still though, on “One Love,” that horn sample used as a bridge fleshes it out, and the monogamous theme in the track speaks to me personally (because I’m a serial monogamer at heart), “Some don’t feel secure unless they have a woman on each arm / They have to play the field, prove they have cha-arm / […] But I believe in one love / I believe in one love.” On the other end of things, “Hymn of the Big Wheel” is characteristic of a major flaw that’ll persist throughout Massive Attack’s discography – not enough ideas to justify its song length. Meanwhile, the only track where Shara Nelson appears but isn’t a commanding force on, is “Daydreaming.” The track is all Tricky, whose rapping is filled with a kinetic energy that pushes the track along, just as much as the heavy drums do (“Dance to the drummer’s beats, we need new sticks / Bounce around the vibes like acoustics”) and Shara Nelson’s relatively minimal contribution only offers brief reprise. Not to mention those piercing three-note melodies played on a synth. I also love the idiosyncratic additions, the “Tic-tic-tic” like an insect that opens the track and later, at the 1:57 mark, the unfinished thought, “If I was a rich man,” that’s followed with “Duh-duh-duhduhduhduh.”
All of the tracks here are backwards-looking (a characteristic that basically defined the bulk of the 90’s). For the best example, “Be Thankful For What You Get” might as well have been a Sly & the Family Stone song from Stand!, especially with that “Brothers! (Brothers!), Sisters! (Sisters!)” hook. Many of these tracks, including the straight-forward UK hip-hop ones, make use of dubby beats, which are inherently based off pre-existing styles, just with an emphasis on drums and bass. I’ve already likened Shara Nelson’s vocal performance on “Unfinished Sympathy” to a song from the 70’s, but her influences date even earlier. Meanwhile, the other big contributor, Horace Andy, is known for his distinctive vocal style that can be heard on his reggae roots albums, again, from the 70’s. In other words,Blue Lines is indebted to all sorts of genres that came before it, but ironically, it’s this quality that lends a timeless factor to it. I’d also call this one of the best trip-hop albums because some of the more-acclaimed ones that followed it lost those influences while they focused on the aesthetic, and it’s never okay when style overpowers substance.