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‘All’s there to love/ Only love’ August 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, life, memories, music, reviews.
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This is not the post I intended to write. This is the post that came to me in an opium-induced dream…er, no. This is the post that popped into my head as I was wandering back from Mill Road, trying to think of ways to avoid packing my belongings up in preparation for moving house. The idea, however, has been bubbling around in my mind since Raphael came to visit in April. We were talking about music, and about the first band, song or album that caused us to really listen to music in a different way.

For me, that band was Massive Attack. The album was Mezzanine. The song was ‘Risingson’. The year was 2001.

When you are a child or young teenager, you listen to music in a rather undiscriminating way (I use ‘you’ to mean ‘me’, of course). The first people to inform your tastes are your parents, and you listen to their music in a rather passive way. You might end up preferring several bands over others, but you do not yet have the tools to articulate why. Thus, I liked The Pogues, Paul Simon, Deborah Conway, Steeleye Span and Annie Lennox, but didn’t really have any reason for doing so beyond a vague sense of liking the sound.

The same goes for when you get a little older and begin to be influenced more by your friends, the radio and music videos (well, if you’re a 90s child who grew up watching Rage and Video Hits or their equivalents). You like certain songs and bands because the people around you like them. Hence, Savage Garden, Hanson, Regurgitator, Backstreet Boys, Silverchair, Aqua and a truly bizarre parade of one-hit wonders (The Mavises? Eiffel 65? Shanks and Bigfoot?). But again these are the tastes of other people and not your own.

So what changes? Well, for me at least (a person who loves to reduce life to a series of ‘She turned a corner and everything changed’ moments), I listened to one song, and then one album, by one band, and it totally changed the way I listened to music, to the extent to which I believe that nothing I did before that moment can truly be called ‘listening to music’.

When I was 16, in early 2001, I went around to an acquaintance’s house with a bunch of other friends. We were meant to be preparing for a group oral presentation on Oedipus Rex for our English class, but, as in so many cases, we abandoned work in favour of socialising. One of my friends put on a CD. It was Mezzanine by Massive Attack.

I had heard their song ‘Teardrop’ before; it had been all over the airwaves in 2000, and I had enjoyed it and been seriously creeped out by its video clip. But I hadn’t thought about the band beyond that. As the scratchy, sinister notes of ‘Angel’ melded with Horace Andy’s silky singing, I pricked up my ears, and began to really listen. By the time we’d got to the next track, ‘Risingson’, I had begun to do something I’d never done before when listening to music: listening with half my ear attuned to the lyrics (which I was analysing like a literary text) and half my ear attuned to the way the lyrics and sound were perfectly fused:

‘Where have all those flowers gone?
Long time passing
Why you keep me tsk and keep me tasking
You keep on asking.’

Before the year was out, I’d bought Mezzanine and Massive Attack’s two other albums, Blue Lines and Protection (Hundredth Window had not been released at that stage). Although Mezzanine remained my favourite (and is, in fact, my favourite album still), I adored the earlier albums too. But why? Why would albums about race relations, immigration and the transformed culture of early 90s Britain (Blue Lines and Protection) and about disgust with the hedonism of the Bristol scene (Mezzanine, which is also meant to be the best album to get high to) have anything to say to a nerdy, middle-class, shy Canberran teenager?

Well, it was the twofold nature of Massive Attack’s lyrics that appealed. On the one hand, they were highly specific, tied to trip-hop, Bristol, Britain, the 90s. On the other, they reached out for the universal with literary and musical allusions. They were at once intensely self-absorbed and personal and overwhelmingly communicative and broadly-focused.

Take ‘Five Man Army’, the fifth track from Blue Lines. The song is packed with internal references to the band (‘Wild Bunch crew at large’) and its history (‘When I was a child I played subbuteo on/ My table then I graduate to studio one/ ’Cos D’s my nom de plume you know but 3’s my pseudonym’). At the same time, it manages to squeeze in a selection of pop-cultural shout-outs (‘I take a small step now it’s a giant stride/ People say I’m loud why should I hide’; ‘See we’re rockin’ in your area rock beneath your balcony/ My baby just cares for me well that’s funny/ Her touch tickles especially on my tummy’; ‘It’s started by Marconi resumed by Sony/ A summary by wireless history and only’; and, arguably, ‘Money money money/ Root of all evil’). There are a series of thematic riffs running through the song, melded coherently, dropped and picked up again at exactly the right place but emphasised in a slightly different way (‘I quietly observe/ Though it’s not my space’ subtly reworks the opening lyrics of ‘I quietly observe/ Standing in my space’, for example). This is a rap song, the type of rap song that is all about talking oneself up, but it’s posturing via literary allusion rather than the usual bragging about one’s car, posse and sexual prowess.

Aside from the lines ‘I quietly observe standing in my space/ Daydreaming’, which has become a kind of personal mantra, ‘Five Man Army didn’t really speak to me in any kind of meaningful way (although I gained great pleasure unpicking the lyrics and musing on the way they fitted together). But there are many Massive Attack songs that seemed to be written especially for me.

‘Protection’ spoke directly to my teenage loneliness, my (misplaced, as it turns out) sense of grief and my desire to be cared for. It sounds pathetic now, but when I was 17, and entering my second year of unrequited love, hearing the beautiful voice of Tracy Thorn singing

This girl I know needs some shelter
She don’t believe anyone can help her
She’s doing so much harm, doing so much damage
But you don’t want to get involved
You tell her she can manage
And you can’t change the way she feels
But you could put your arms around her

I know you want to live yourself
But could you forgive yourself
If you left her just the way
You found her

meant so much. Every time I hear that song, I remember all my wasted emotion on a guy I referred to in my diaries as ‘You’ (with the capital Y) and stared at in what I thought was a wanly plaintive expression across classrooms.

All teenagers have a misguided sense of the significance of their own suffering, but I’m grateful that my personal emo soundtrack was ‘Protection’ and not ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’.

If I was an emo, I was also a wannabe hippie. I kid you not when I say that as a teenager I truly intended to live out my adult days as an environmental protester. And, would you believe it, Massive Attack have a hippie, ‘everyone hold hands together and sing kumbaya’ song. It’s called ‘The Hymn of the Big Wheel’, and it is sung by the incomparable Horace Andy, and it is beautiful.

I’d like to feel that you could be free
Look up at the blue skies beneath a new tree
Sometime again
You’ll turn green and the sea turns red
My son I said the power of axis over my head
The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

We sang about the sun and danced among the trees
And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze
Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone
Down within the shadows where the factories drone
On the surface of the wheel they build another town
And so the green come tumbling down
Yes close your eyes and hold me tight
And I’ll show you sunset sometime again

I challenge you to listen to this and not be moved. It has an innocence and purity, and a knowing cynicism all at once. It could only have been written in the 90s, with the environmental movement hovering in the background, and the potential of the internet as a tool of both distance and closeness hovering beyond the comprehension of most people. The song makes you want to dance barefoot in the mud and watch the clouds, and then burst into tears at the thought of the butchered Tasmanian rainforests.

Then there’s the truly bizarre ‘Sly’. ‘I already know my children’s children’s faces/ Voices that I’ve heard before’. What the hell is that all about? And then we come to:

I feel like a thousand years have passed
I’m younger than I used to be
I feel like the world is my home at last
I know everyone that I meet […]

Wondering is this there all there is
Since I was since I began to be
Wondering, wandering
Where we can do what we please
Wondering

If you think about those lyrics, you know all you’ll ever need to know to understand me as I was then, as I am now, and as I will always be. ‘Sly’ expresses a mindset of mine that is expressed in a similar way by Jo Walton in The King’s Peace, the first volume of her two-part Arthurian alt-history series:

What it is to be old is to remember things that nobody else alive can remember. I always say that when people ask me about my remarkable long life. Now they can hear me when I say it. Now, when I am ninety-three and remember so many things that are to them nothing but bright legends long ago and far away. I do not tell them that I said that first when I was seventeen, and felt it too…So I have been old by my own terms since I was seventeen.

– Jo Walton, The King’s Peace, Penguin, p ix.

I haven’t even got on to Mezzanine yet. In my mind, no one will ever make a more perfect album. (I know this is a controversial opinion among Massive Attack fans, since this was the album that caused serious fractures in the bands and marked a departure from Massive Attack’s original sound.) It is a brilliant, coherent unity of words, sound and theme. The songs can be paired to give a broader, more complex understanding of their writers’ ideas.

For example, ‘Inertia Creeps’ is a record of a destructive, unsatisfying relationship from the guy’s perspective. He knows there’s something not quite right going on (‘Will you take a string/ Say you string me along’), but he chooses to ignore it, so he can get some action, essentially. Two songs later (and it’s significant that the song between is called ‘Exchange’, since we exchange points of view) is ‘Dissolved Girl’, the same story told from the perspective of the girl. Only now do we have the complete story. She doesn’t love him, and he knows it, but says nothing. She stays because the alternative is worse, and says nothing. He can feel the inertia creeping, moving up slowly, and says nothing. She stays, despite the fact that the relationship is destroying her sense of self (‘Shame, such a shame/ I think I kind of lost myself again’). We’re meant to lose ourselves in love, but surely staying in a loveless relationship and allowing whatever happens to happen causes an equal loss of identity. A dissolution. It’s seriously powerful stuff, and I wish I could say that I appreciate it solely on an intellectual level.

Moving along, we come to what are in my opinion the ‘Big Three’ of the album (I adore ‘Teardrop’ to bits, but it’s so overplayed, and I will limit myself to saying that its lines ‘Love, love is a verb/ Love is a doing word’ are among my favourite song lyrics ever, and Liz Fraser’s vocals are incredible) – ‘Black Milk’, ‘Mezzanine’ and ‘Group Four’.

‘Black Milk’ has an illusion of simplicity. Its lines are short, brief, and almost curt. But a closer look reveals hidden depths. The hovering, dark notes of the music evokes the watery, dark corners of the ocean floor, and I almost picture a series of bizarre marine creatures, the lights on their bodies illuminating the gloom in the higher points of the music. Liz Fraser’s voice is incredible, cutting through the sinister music with shimmering clarity. The sound is amazingly cold, and amazingly pure. And what of the words themselves? They are beautiful, but kind of creepy at the same time:

Eat me
In the space
Within my heart

Unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which are about being lost in the lack of love, ‘Black Milk’ is about being lost in love:

All’s there to love
Only love

Next up is ‘Mezzanine’, in my opinion the most perfect song ever written (it could only be more perfect if it had a female singer soaring in above 3D and Daddy G). What can I say about it that I haven’t said already? I associate it with the SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ‘TROY GAME’ BOOKS relationship between Asterion/Weyland and Cornelia/Eaving/Noah in Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series, which is my model for Great Love And Its Power To Save The World And All People. Even as the lyrics allude to something I believe deeply (that true love is the instigator of personal improvement, and if it doesn’t change you, it’s not love), they are playfully punning:

I could be yours
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine

We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
Will see to
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
We can unwind all our flaws

Flaws-floors. The song’s called ‘Mezzanine’. Get it? It’s glorious stuff. (By the way, you might’ve noticed that I changed the lyrics from ‘All these have flaws’ as the lyrics website has to ‘All these other flaws’. I may be wrong, but I think that the lyrics should read ‘All these other flaws’. It makes more sense if the song is punning on flaws-floors.)

Finally we have ‘Group Four’, which acts as a counterpoint to the bleakness of ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’. This song is sung by a man (3D) and a woman (Liz Fraser), unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which each have only one singer. They are in harmony. They are not lost and dissolved and inert. They are found. She is a person again, with a sense of self (‘See through me little glazed lane/ A world in myself/ Ready to sing’). He has lost his apathy and inertia (‘Flickering I roam’ and ‘I see to bolts/ Put keys to locks/ No boat are rocked/ I’m free to roam’). All is right with the world.

I could go on, but this post is now longer than some of the essays I’ve had to write for uni, and I don’t know how short your attention spans are. I’ve put a lot of myself into this post, and it is more personal than anything I would normally write on this particular blog, but it had to be said. Massive Attack absolutely changed the world for me. They made me listen to music in a different way, and have had an extraordinary influence on the way I appreciated both my old favourite bands and every new song I heard. Never before had music shown me both the world, and myself, more clearly.

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Comments»

1. Catie - August 13, 2009

Hey, commenting a bit late, but really liked this post 🙂

2. dolorosa12 - August 14, 2009

Thanks, Catie! Do you like Massive Attack? I know you’re a fan of Conor Oberst (in his various incarnations), which suggests you’re a fan of interesting lyrics as well as sounds. That’s why I got into Massive Attack, and it just means you appreciate the music on a whole different level.

3. Catie - August 16, 2009

I haven’t heard much Massive Attack, besides Teardrop, but I do like interesting lyrics and sounds so I would be interested to hear more.

4. Fell from my heart and landed in my eyes « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - August 25, 2011

[…] and to say that they reflect my own personal experience would be an understatement. You may recall that when I write about music, I tend to look for connections between songs, and in particular […]


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