I came across an interview with Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja a while back in which he explained why the band was taking its time releasing 100th Window. He claimed it was partly due to the current musical climate, with its focus on shallow, manufactured pop and image. He didn’t feel like it was the right time to release a new album. I found those comments somewhat ironic, thinking that if there was ever a time when we needed a new Massive Attack album, it was now.
Someone needed to bring the fear back, to show all of the young pups how it was done. It’s been years since Blue Lines came out but I still feel the shockwaves each time I listen to it, and 1998’s Mezzanine was a dense (if somewhat uneven) work of gravity and atmosphere on par with black holes. Massive Attack’s releases have always oozed substance and style, and a new album was just be the thing we needed to sweep away a shallow musical environment, or least shake things up.
Sadly, 100th Window doesn’t come very close to meeting that sort of expectation. Picking up a Massive Attack album, you prepare yourself for something dangerous and beautiful, threatening and exhilarating. While initial listens conjured up those impressions, I was surprised and dismayed at how unaffecting it soon became.
This certainly wasn’t due to the music. 100th Window picks up where Mezzanine left off, delivering a dense, thick cloud of crunchy beats, orchestral arrangements, and a sense of atmosphere capable of smothering weaker listeners. As far as the sonics go, it’s spot on, and I have to confess to an occasional case of goosebumps. With nearly every track running over 6 minutes (and most over 7), 3D has plenty of space to work with and provides plenty for the listener to chew on.
Asian and Middle-Eastern flourishes appear throughout the album, floating in amidst the thick layers of programming and adding an exotic edge. If you’ve ever seen Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels, you’ll remember Massive Attack playing as one of the characters (a hitman played by Leon Lai) prowled the seedy Hong Kong underworld plying his trade. I’m hardpressed to think of a group whose music is more fitting for such scenes, with songs like “Butterfly Caught” and the massive (npi) “Antistar” (the album’s crowning achievement) being obvious choices.
However, what’s missing from 100th Window is Massive Attack’s voice, the element that brought focus and purpose to their sound. This comes as no surprise since the album is basically a Del Naja solo affair. Longtime members Mushroom and Daddy G, who provided many of the group’s memorable rhymes, are nowhere to be found, having left the group due to artistic differences and to raise a family respectfully.
I can’t say how many times I found myself waiting for the vocals of Daddy G to flow under the music, like a snake that could strike at anytime. I kept waiting for the vocal interplay that brought so much energy to songs like “Inertia Creeps.” Without this element, 100th Window lacks its edge.
Del Naja steps behind the mic on several tracks, but his voice doesn’t possess the necessary gravity. This becomes especially apparent when it’s cut up and manipulated on “Small Time Shot Away,” which sounds more like a Kid A remix than anything else. Meanwhile, Horace Andy, Massive Attack’s de facto guest vocalist, lacks the memorable grace and flair that he displayed on previous albums.
Sinead O’Connor’s vocals are gorgeous on “What Your Soul Sings,” but lyrics like “The things that bring you down can only do harm to you/So make your choice joy/The joy belongs to you/And when you do, you’ll find the one you love is you” sound like they came from an Oprah episode. “Special Cases” is one of the album’s finer musical moments, with sweeping textures and a driving bassline à la Mezzanine, but lackluster lyrics (“Take a look around the world/You see such bad things happening/There are many good men/Thank your lucky stars that he’s one of them”) again prove to be a hindrance.
And finally, O’Connor is far too cloying and melodramatic on “A Prayer for England,” which tries way too hard to make a socio-political statement. That’s a real shame, because the song could’ve been so relevant in light of the world’s current state of affairs.
I hate to use the old cliche “If this were any other band…” but it feels so appropriate here. If any other band had released 100th Window, it’d be cause to celebrate; critics would be falling all over themselves, and the underground would be heralding a new talent. But this is Massive Attack we’re talking about, a group that spawned a host of imitators only to now sound like one. To say I had high expectations is an understatement, just as it is to say this album is disappointing.