The Dystopian Sound of Massive Attack

In anticipation of a new album in 2017, Neon Dystopia looks back at a much-overlooked release from the UK’s legendary Massive Attack.

“Take a look around the world, you see such bad things happening…”

Upon waking up to the troubling news of recent weeks from the UK, I found myself thinking of the Massive Attack song A Prayer for England, a collaboration with Sinead O’Connor that appeared on the group’s 2003 album, 100th Window.  This was the album that served as a follow-up to the group’s 1998 classic Mezzanine, and this was the song with lyrics that send a shiver down the spine with their chilling relevance today, O’Connor begging the listening end of her prayer to let no-one else ‘be slain’ due to a less than accurate representation of belief.

The song was deemed by most Massive Attack fans to be an overly blunt message from an outfit more beloved for their ethereal and cryptic nature. Listen to the mysterious lullaby of Mezzanine standout Teardrop or the trip-hop of 1994’s Karmacoma single and try to come away with a definitive interpretation if you can. Conversely, the album 100th Window itself was deemed to be the band’s worst for being overly cryptic and insular as a whole.  Aside from Sinead O’Connor and Massive Attack mainstay Horace Andy – along with a very well-hidden vocal line from Gorillaz singer 2D – the album is mainly made up of vocals from group founder 3D, aka Robert Del Naja aka – according to some conspiracy theories – Banksy, the graffiti anti-hero from Bristol (which I highly doubt, to be honest). Massive Attack was no longer a trio by this point, unfortunately.

3D’s stoned out vocals replace his usually stoned out rap delivery, and a very cold and hazy glitchtronica sound characterizes the album, replacing the warm dub and meaty post-punk that made Massive Attack famous in the 1990s. The album is akin to the lonely paranoia of Radiohead’s Kid A, and similarly dystopian themes pervade throughout the album’s lyrics and overall concept.

The first single from the LP was Special Cases, a song which, like A Prayer for England, discards the glitchy electronic sounds for a minute to use the familiarly forceful and bassy Massive Attack template. Just as overt are the song lyrics themselves which, while simple enough, have various different interpretations. The verses have an intimate setting, of relations between a man and his partner, but the intimacy that invites you in also asks of you to look closer, almost forensically at what’s going on. There is more than one dimension to the song, which the lyrics spell out when pointing out ‘there are always two sides.’ This duality extends to the song’s chorus, going from one stance in its first iteration, to another one completely by the song’s end.

The track starts with a seeming defense of patriarchy, telling the woman ‘Don’t tell your man what he don’t do right’ and ‘To check yourself, for your own shit; Don’t be making out like it’s all his.’ This is an interesting precursor to the ‘rape culture’  discussion of the 2010s we live in, of the argument against the idea a woman should examine herself first before accusing a man of doing something that isn’t right.

When the chorus kicks in, Massive Attack suddenly shifts from the personal to the political and back again, Sinead singing about all the dystopian cruelty in the world, then reminding us, ‘There are many good men. Ask yourself, is he one of them?’

The personal is the political, as they say, and the song seems to be saying that in a world full of trouble, it’s best to find a good man for solace. Find better than what you have at the moment, in other words, which stands in direct contrast to the complacency argued in the first verse. Are there two voices at work here, one the sense of shame which keeps the subject in place, begging her to put up with all that makes her unhappy, and another arguing against the complacency that keeps the woman in the same relationship, the same sort of complacency that props up the patriarchy which has created this dystopia, perhaps?

The political essence of the song makes us ask further questions relevant to our time, such as whether we should be checking ourselves before ever casting stones. Can one side criticize another if its own house is not in order, for example? Can one side blame another, even if both sides are throwing from glass abodes? There is a question of self-righteousness here, borne out in the second verse when Massive Attack reminds us ‘the deadliest of sin is pride, make you feel like you’re always right.’ If you feel you’re always right, then, of course, you may be self-deluded when saying the other side has things they ‘don’t do right.’ The effects can truly be deadly.

Just as you think you have the song pegged though, the chorus repeats, this time singing

Take a look around the world, You see such mad things happening. There are few good men – Thank your lucky stars that he’s one of them.

The war between the couple is now over, perhaps because they have realised it ‘takes two to make love, two to make a life.’ Discourse and discussion has eased the process. And yet, the knowing feel of the entire song does make you then wonder if the victim has now been made to accept their situation, accept the patriarchy, and retreat into submission. Perhaps all the talk of green grass being worse on the other side has made her stop questioning her laurels and instead rest on them. Perhaps there has been a pacification, a brainwashing by easy to access imagery of global madness that pushes our subject back to creature comforts.

Or, how about this – in the face of a cyberpunk dystopia, maybe the only way to stay sane is to stay in the arms of loved ones, and be grateful to the ‘lucky stars’ for all that we have. The overall message could indeed be a very simple one.

The above mention of imagery leads me back to everything that began after 100th Window‘s release. We saw the rise of Banky’s satirical take on the media and Western preconceptions. We saw the rise in popularity of documentarian Adam Curtis, who looks at the impact of news imagery on our lives, and who eventually collaborated with Massive Attack in 2013 for the live experience of Everything is Going to Plan. Much like its song Everywhen repeats to the listener, ‘Everything you think you know…’, the album implies the same sort of subtext found behind both the works of Banksy and Curtis.

Other songs contain allusions to ‘wartime’, a ‘gunmetal sky’, plus a ‘borderline case’ individual, looking at ‘passport photos’ in another twist on the political vs. the personal, in the song of a man who doesn’t belong anywhere either spiritually or literally (Future Proof). The songs are cold and lonely, sounding like the dystopian imagery they conjure, an iciness reflected in the shattered-glass artwork of the front cover.

They are also very paranoid songs. The title of the album reflects this, being named after Charles Jennings book The Hundredth Window, a 2000 release that looked at the dangers of the internet on your privacy and security. Both this book and the album came out long before Facebook, Snowden and Russian hackers; in fact, at that point, all anyone cared about when it came to internet privacy was making sure the family PC had none of your internet history recorded!

In the light of all this, one question remains – is 100th Window now due a reappraisal? Do we need to see if it was unfairly maligned upon its release, and instead deserves to be regarded in the same esteem as the Blue Lines LP and Mezzanine? Furthermore, is it perhaps an essential addition to the cyberpunk music canon?

I would say no. Sure, perhaps the album was a victim of being one of many soundalike peers at the turn of the 21st century. There were many glitchtronica albums from displaced, disaffected male voices during this period, such as UK band Hood’s crossover success Cold House, The Notwist’s Neon Golden, Radiohead’s aforementioned Kid A and its follow-up Amnesiac, all stretching out to the displaced if somewhat dreamier female voice of Björk on her Vespertine LP. But much of 100th Window doesn’t make for as interesting a listen as these similar releases. Most of the electronic tracks are overly produced and elongated, sucking all life from the music, especially when 3D is on the mic. Unlike Mezzanine, the album feels like a patchwork both musically and vocally, despite its recurrent dystopian themes, and the fact it’s one man’s vision behind it all.

The songs I’ve mentioned in this article are all worth a listen, but in the end, the best track is the simplest one – What Your Soul Sings. This is a song that encourages us to look beyond the mad and the bad things of the world. It’s a song that sounds like the other side of the rainbow, the utopia on the other end of our dystopia. Enjoy it for all its beauty below.


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Written by Giacomo G L E E
Giacomo is author of Funereal, a novel set in Seoul with cyberpunk themes. Black Mirror meets Black Swan in a look at the unique 'fake funeral' industry of South Korea - for fans of Mitchell, Gibson, Sterling and Murakami.

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