I never fancied myself an anglophile but when I look back to the late eighties and early nineties, a good deal of my listening time was devoted to albums from artists such as Soul 2 Soul, The Orb, The KLF, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Massive Attack.
Much like the video where the Bristol sound system’s chanteuse Shara Nelson walks through the Los Angeles’ streets singing her heart out, after a long hard night and morning dancing in afterhours clubs I would don my Walkman and walk the streets of New York City singing the tunes on “Blue Lines”. Nobody noticed or cared. It was New York.
The album’s fusion of laid-back beats, slow-burnin’ grooves, melancholic lyrics and cinematic atmospherics was a fitting score to the street theater unfolding around each corner. Each track seemed to match the neighborhood’s current drama, but the song that always stood out and is still regarded by many as Massive Attack’s finest moment was “Unfinished Sympathy”. Led by former Wild Bunch cohort Shara Nelson whose melody and lyrics served as the launch pad for the track, the song is a masterpiece of longing that somehow also manages to be uplifting.
The simplicity of the arrangement creates a feeling of tension waiting to be released which suits the theme of loss. Even though it draws from dance music, the album version does not have a traditional bass line and the song seems to build and build but never reaches an obvious climax or breakdown. This idiosyncrasy places it leagues away from a lot of dance music that seems to be constructed in a fashion akin to colour-by-numbers.
“Unfinished Sympathy” is a wonderful union of the synthetic with its use of samples and drum programming and the organic represented by a beautiful female soul voice and live string section. The song’s initial tone is set with the chilled hip hop beats springing from the percussion break on J.J. Johnson’s “Parade Strut”, drum bells lifted from Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (also famously snatched for Run DMC’s “Peter Piper”) and the lovely “hey hey hey hey”s gleaned from Mahavishnu Orchestra & John McLaughlin’s “Planetary Citizen”. Mushroom’s interspersed scratches remind us that Massive Attack sprung from DJ-led club culture.
The strings creep in, setting the scene with haunting minor chords. Nelson enters the picture and her lyrics of searching for love lost are delivered thoughtfully, as if she really means it without the vocal histrionics that have marred much of contemporary diva-led soul music. Simple single note piano lines augment the vocal and song.
Then the strings open up, understated in place of the usual “break”. The sound is beautifully expansive as they were arranged by veteran Wil Malone and recorded at Abbey Road Studios. They are also a reminder that nothing can replace the sound of a live string section properly recorded and these strings elevate the song to another level. The song eventually deconstructs piece by piece until we are left with a sonic wind tunnel of conflicting emotions seguing into the album’s next song, “Daydreaming”.
Special mention must be given to my favourite remix of the song, “Oakie’s Mix”, produced by DJ Paul Oakenfold and his engineer Steve Osborne. This version is less ethereal than the album version as it is geared for the dance floor with a proper funked-up bass line and heavy sub-bass and kick. As a DJ I have played this song on many a dance floor inspiring hundreds to thousands of people to raise their hands in the air, united in a euphoric state. Most recently I played it at the end of my closing set for the Garden Party festival in Croatia aside the Adriatic Sea and that moment’s indelible imprint will forever remain with me. And “Unfinished Sympathy” will forever remain an end-of-the-night classic.
Classic Album Sundays will be playing Massive Attack’s Blue Lines in full on an audiophile system including Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond loudspeakers:
London: Sunday 2nd June, 5 – 8pm, Hanbury Arms, 33 Linton Street, N1 7DU
Tickets: £8 on the door and £8 + service charge here
If you can’t make it, grab a decent copy, turn down the lights and listen in full at home.