Massive Attack - Protection - Review
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critics' view

When music can be described as “chill” or “mood music” or, most damning, “dinner party music” it usually refers to the sound having nothing of particular interest to grab onto. It recedes straight to the background, lacking any offensive elements as well as any worth caring about. But there comes a time where we all have to soundtrack events composed primarily of people we don’t know and that’s where Massive Attack’s Protection becomes a life saver. Its mood music in the best possible sense, luxurious and smoky enough to settle comfortably in the background but subtly gripping enough to prompt at least a few of those strangers to ask “Man, who is this"”

Following the release of Blue Lines Shara Nelson, whose muscular vocals propelled “Safe From Harm” and “Unfinished Sympathy”, departed the group to focus on her solo career. Her departure left the group without a female muse to channel songs through. Massive Attack set about scrambling for a new singer to helm a few songs off their follow up. They posted an ad in the NME that read “Female vocalist wanted for internationally acclaimed pop band. Influences Aretha Franklin and Tracy Chapman.” They ended up drafting a Nigerean born singer named Nicolette. In addition, they made a list of other singers they wanted to appear on the project, including Sioux-sie of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sinead O’ Connor. Tracy Thorn of Everything But the Girl ended up accepting their offer and with Andy Horace and Tricky on for contributions everything was in place.

This girl I know/Needs some shelter

Protection opens with a one-two punch so quietly devastating it might take months to make it to the rest of the album. The opening title track makes full use of its near 8-minute run to slowly but confidently introduce its elements. By the time the keyboard comes sliding in around the 30-second mark you’re face down on the floor. Tracy Thorn turns in a powerhouse vocal performance, fearlessly staring down the gradually escalating backing track and delivers some of the most moving lyrics to grace a Massive Attack album. Thorn weaves unconditional loyalty with earned strength that comes out sounding like the subtlest battle cry ever laid to tape. “I’ll stand in front of you,” goes the chorus, “And take the force of the blow/Protection.” The way she holds that last word will make you swear your sprit has just departed your body.

And then, somehow, the album takes an impossible step up with the somnambulant “Karmacoma”. You’re going to want a decent subwoofer for this one. The loping rhythm gives you just enough time to find your footing before the bass comes through and knocks you flat on your ass again. Tricky and 3D tag team stoned poetry that keeps the room spinning. “You sure you wanna be with me I’ve nothing to give" Take a walk take a rest, taste the rest.” “”Deflowering my baby, are you my baby mate" I must be crazy.” The most alluring moment of all comes at the end, when the chorus is thrown off kilter again by 3D’s playful “Whaat"” The stunning “Karmacoma” might just be the single best thing these guys ever assembled.

You live in the city/You stay by yourself

From there Massive Attack pull at the edges of the sound established on Blue Lines, dialing down the tension and menace of that album while creating a more plush and comfortable atmosphere that never goes limp. The album’s two instrumentals, “Weather Storm” and “Heat Miser”, should be the album’s lowlights but they end up being perfectly smooth. The former is pulled along by producer Nellee Hooper’s improvised piano part while the latter is made intriguing through the heavy breathing of 3D, Nellee Hooper, Tricky, Daddy G, and Mushroom all mixed together while also sounding like the perfect intro music to a late 90s survival horror PS1 game. Tracy Thorn turns in another stellar vocal performance on the wounded but determined “Better Things”. “You say the magic’s gone/Well I’m not a magician,” she states to a wandering lover with barely concealed rage, “You say the sparks gone/Well get an electrician.” The urban slick “Sly” is beautifully complemented by live strings while its companion song “Three” that enigmatically dances around the issue of being situated right between childhood confusion and the steely resolve of maturity. The dense, dubby “Spying Glass” features the always-underrated Horace Andy strangling every vowel for maximum pleasure.

Protection pulls all the most accessible elements of Blue Lines, the atmosphere, the rhythms, the vocals, and streamlines them into a sleek ride under urban lights. It spawned 3 top 30 singles and the album debuted at number 4 on the charts, making good on the promise and potential of their game changing debut the second time around. While not as essential as their debut, I cannot comprehend what kind of music connoisseur wouldn’t love having this in their collection. It is as accessible and immediate as trip-hop gets. In order for it to achieve that accessibility a bit of the edge and tension of Blue Lines had to be sacrificed, luckily, those elements would make a comeback in a huge way on what came next.

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