It’s the sound of a late night bus ride through the inner city, lights flickering, raindrops pattering, windows gleaming with condensation – only Mezzanine so successfully captures this atmosphere, this sense of uncertainty, that fear of urbanity. It’s an album so hazy, and so shrouded in deep fogs, that any attempt at shadowy indistinctiveness is lost in the many ways that it stands out. For Bristol trip hop pioneers Massive Attack, their third studio album was an enormous departure from the jazz fusion and alternative hip hop stylings of debut Blue Lines and followup Protection – this album would be far darker, far more murky, and far more urgent than anything else the group had released.
Among contemporaries like Portishead and Tricky, Massive Attack earned themselves a place in history as pioneers of the trip hop sound, effortlessly fusing a myriad of musical influences into one. The cultural melting pot of Bristol saw hip hop, dub, soul, jazz, and electronica bleed into one another; Blue Lines, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, and Portishead’s Dummy were the offspring of this musical cross-contamination. Numerous artists – Radiohead, Björk, and Gorillaz to name a few – would later take inspiration from the UK’s newest and most innovative scene, but 3D and Daddy G sought to do more with the sound they had cultivated. As founding band member Andrew Vowles departed, Robert del Naja and Grant Marshall recruited producer Neil Davidge for their third studio effort – making it clear that their new project would be an entirely new direction.
Whereas Blue Lines and Protection thrived on influences in hip hop and jazz, Mezzanine drew more from post-punk and the UK’s burgeoning electronica scene. Straight from the onset, album opener Angel begins with a brooding bassline, a few idle, lonely drums, and scarce shades of ambience – Mezzanine feels like the inheritor to the atmospherics of gothic rock. There’s a more blatant acknowledgment to this in the sampling too; Man Next Door features samples of The Cure’s 10:15 Saturday Night, while b-side Superpredators takes from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Mittageisen. Even instrumentally, the introduction of abrasive, distorted guitar lines on tracks like Dissolved Girl or Angel are testament to the evolution of the group’s trip hop roots. Mezzanine’s experimentation was the new formula for when alternative and electronica clashed.
Massive Attack’s preoccupations with urbanity, modernity, and the more menial aspects of daily life are just as present on Mezzanine as they were anywhere in their earlier material; in fact, they’re almost accentuated by the melancholia and gloomy character of the group’s songwriting. Whether it be a solemn night shift on Group Four, reflections on drugs and clubbing on Risingson, or psychedelic recollections of sex and love on Inertia Creeps, Massive Attack have never posed themselves to present some sort of grand narrative. Instead, it’s their fascination with humdrum ambivalence, this willingness to tell things as they are, an almost existential and ethereal presentation of events, that characterizes their music. Del Naja’s wispy sprechgesang vocals, Daddy G’s breathy baritone, as well as the carefully curated selection of guest singers, all add this dreamy and floating presence to instrumentation already shrouded by drifting fogs, clouds, and mists. It’s a mood of unconsciousness that broods over Mezzanine, lamenting throughout every track.
So much of Mezzanine’s atmosphere comes from its textures; both droning, yet entrancing rhythms, and those contrasts between gritty lo-fi percussion and glossy ambience. Elizabeth Fraser (of Cocteau Twins) provides ethereal vocal duties for Teardrop, Black Milk, and Group Four, where her performances coalesce with the group’s lowkey, washed-out drum machines in a beautiful coming together of two very different worlds. Or renowned reggae singer Horace Andy’s additions to Angel or Man Next Door, resulting in warped, off-kilter dub records. What seems like indecisiveness at first listen, soon proves to be Mezzanine’s strength – this ability to bring together what seem like very foreign ideas together seamlessly. Inertia Creeps blends electronica samples from Ultravox’s ROckWrok with traditional Turkish rhythms into a strange sort of postmodern exotica, while Risingson appropriates the sentiments of the Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason with samples set to reflections of contemporary drug culture.
All of Mezzanine’s tracks may drift along themselves individually, but in the context of the album, it’s the sense of melancholia and internal strife that binds them all together. Black Milk meanders onwards, a moody piece set to haunting keys that wander in and out of the mix, while title track Mezzanine soon transforms from a simple evening stroll into tense, imperfect layers of industrial noise and disarray. Interlude Exchange and finale (Exchange) are the only moments of respite – the track’s first instrumental appearance seems to bridge together the singles of the first half with the deeper cuts of the second, and it’s a minimal, string-driven composition, warping Isaac Hayes’ Our Day Will Come into psychedelic trip hop. Closing out the album, (Exchange) comes around again, but this time with Horace Andy on vocals. Where penultimate track Group Four ends in despair, (Exchange) is a hopeful, lighthearted conclusion to the album. Mezzanine’s final moments almost seem to argue that, ultimately, despite these darker moments, better things will come.
Mezzanine is an album that seems to serve as the soundtrack for the transition from dusk to dawn, always contemplative, brooding, wary of its surroundings, and constantly moving between light and dark, joy and melancholia. Few albums are as lush and multifaceted as this, somehow encapsulating so many varied moods within the confines of just eleven tracks. Massive Attack crafted more than a definitive album in the scope of electronica, or even in the scope of the 1990s – Mezzanine is an album that has and will continue to impress and influence listeners past, present, and future.