Holy Hell! Mezzanine Turns 20

Holy Hell! Mezzanine Turns 20

Mezzanine was a rapturous end and beginning.

You are my angel” is only behind “na na na”s, “I love you”s and “please don’t leave”s in the canon of schmaltzy pop lyrics. “Earth Angel” probably kicked the whole thing off, Robbie Williams dominated the charts with “Angels” and Shaggy’s unfortunately ubiquitous “Angel” was as inescapable as it was infuriating. Massive Attack knew this trend; they were expert pop dismantlers by the end of the ‘90s, flooding British airwaves with truly baffling and moving concoctions of traditional radio motifs and a slew of experimental, aural treats. But in the four years after smash-hit “Protection,” the Bristol collective decided to fully embrace their bizarre, shuddering, terrifying side and upend the pop landscape. When they opened Mezzanine with “You are my angel” over a twitching drum kit, synths that defied gravity, a Nine Inch Nails-style breakdown and an entrancing, disturbing vocal line, they fractured the music world around them, a disruption which still reverberates for both oddballs and superstars.

Perhaps the malicious, off-kilter sound of Mezzanine wasn’t surprising. Even by today’s standards, these hip-hop loving, gospel sampling, spaced out lads from the U.K. weren’t the obvious choice to be ‘90s megastars. “Unfinished Sympathy,” a nearly unparalleled smash in both acclaim and excellence, was only the band’s second single. Fame came quick and brought a noxious underside. Tensions in the band were high by the end of the ‘90s. Robert “3D” Del Naja was becoming increasingly controlling, alienating both Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles. 3D’s domination of the group and the rapid sonic evolution would eventually force Vowles to throw in the towel. Del Naja had also just come out of a relationship which he described bluntly as “fucked up” fueling the darker, sexual direction in which Mezzanine thrived.

They were also seeing their influence ripple out in real time. Trip-hop was becoming a cultural phenomenon, with old collaborator Tricky winning lavish praise for his debut and fellow Bristolians Portishead rivaling the genre’s founders for both commercial and critical success. Though never said out loud, it certainly seemed like Mezzanine was Massive Attack’s statement album that they had made this genre and were still the best in the game. And their way to retain the crown was to tear apart the very sound they had created.

The album was originally titled Damaged Goods after Gang of Four’s meditation on brutish sexual politics. The name didn’t stick, but the theme and sonic influence did. Even in its most beautiful moments, Mezzanine was always content to simmer and brood. The core minutes of sheer rapture that punctuated the LP weren’t like the sudden upswell of strings on “Unfinished Symphony.” Instead, they were messy, chaotic, self-cannibalizing bursts of madness, as shocking as they were gorgeous. They proved that from the first song, the aforementioned “Angel.” Using the otherworldly pipes of Horace Andy, who isn’t so much androgynous in his delivery as inhuman, Massive Attack crafted a zero-G beat that shattered itself into a fuming roar of noise. It set the standard for Mezzanine’s thematic warping, interpreting the “Angel” in its truly traditional sense: an elder creature, incomprehensible to humans.

With Tricky’s absence, Del Naja became Massive Attack’s central lyrical voice, laying bare his own paranoia and self-loathing. Sickly banger “Inertia Creeps” is the band’s sexiest song, if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics. The smoky beat sounds directly lifted from an Istanbul nightclub, and Del Naja appears to be muttering come-ons as the drums work into a sweaty groove. This was no document of thrilling lust, but of a dead-end relationship only held together by sloth. Though equal to Dummy in sheer makeout-itude, Mezzanine was poisonous in its view of power and romance. “Two undernourished egos, four rotating hips” is how 3D describes his relationship, staying in bed due to easy access to sex and nothing more. “And dreams of flying/ I fit nearly surrounds me,” Del Naja raps in a brief moment of hope, only to counter with “though I get lonely slowly.” He ignores his flights of fancy to stay between the sheets.

“Dissolved Girl” saw fucking in the same tweaked out logic. Though second only to “Inertia Creeps” for lovemaking, it’s just as venomous. “Say my name” being cooed over a rippling guitar riff and grunting drums is easy short hand for that one playlist you save for February 14th, but “I need a little love to ease the pain” hints at sex as a poor healing balm, two bodies receiving pleasure and moving on. Add a Ministry style collapse, and “Dissolved Girl” paints a bleak picture of all romantic relationships. Del Naja, through Sheffield-based singer Sara Jay, was only imagining sex to briefly forget his ex. Or as Jay sang, “passion’s overrated anyway.” Lead single “Risingson,” though not about knocking boots, shuddered its way into the same nihilistic view. It was a shot at the daftness of the U.K. DJ scene and, even with a butter-smooth bassline, the song seemed seconds away from tearing itself limb from limb. Del Naja’s apathetic flow was less like a harmless whisper and more the scribblings of a serial killer.

But the voice that defined Mezzanine was the literal voice of the Seraphim, Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins. She lent her pipes to three songs, “Teardrop,” “Black Milk” and “Group Four,” which weren’t just three of the best songs on the album, but signature tracks for the entire genre and decade. “Teardrop” was the stunning turn that pulled many folks into Mezzanine in the first place, a hushed, immersive track that was originally pitched to Madonna. But no one could have given “Teardrop” the perfect coo like Fraser, who was in the midst of writing the song when her friend Jeff Buckley passed away. She and the rest of Massive Attack, gave him an appropriately angelic farewell. Even more alluring was the opaque “Black Milk,” with obscure enough lyrics that Fraser’s velvet lines could be interpreted as sexual submission or postpartum depression. There might not be a better song to document Trip-hop’s druggy, hypnotizing power than this spiraling, bewitching track.

Surprising then that it wasn’t one of Fraser’s spotlights that ended up being the emotional core of Mezzanine. Instead, that honor goes to “Man Next Door,” the album’s only cover. Dub rings loudly throughout the record, but was somewhat drowned out by Massive Attack’s genre gluttony. But this is a pitch-black reggae song, as menacing as it is gorgeous. Riding that sample from “When the Levee Breaks,” Marshall gives his best performance, his heaving tenor adding gravitas to John Holt’s original tale of domestic abuse. In Massive Attack’s suffocating smooth logic, the song becomes a larger parable about the rapidly oncoming 21st century, with imminent worries of national security, right-wing nut jobs and the surveillance state lurking at the edges. Coming between “Dissolved Girl” and “Black Milk,” Marshall’s voice is startling and completely transparent in its vulnerability. Rather than Jay’s cruelly coy delivery or Fraser’s cloudy narrative, he is absolute in his heartbreak and longing. After six tracks of complete breakdowns of both the mental and musical kind, “Man Next Door” is where the album snaps under its own emotional weight.

But the show had to go on, and the album reached its climax with “Group Four,” a duet between Fraser and Del Naja that followed Dummy’s Bond theme sexiness to an illogical conclusion. Though it starts with conga beats and Fraser’s entrancing wizardry, unsettling sounds poke at the edges. Del Naja interjects with absurd snippets, backwards sampled guitars appear and disappear without warning and untraceable synths undulate just behind Fraser. And at the five-minute mark, all hell breaks lose. The eruptions on “Angel” and “Dissolved Girl” were building up to this, a sleek, pounding groove that simultaneously out muscled every Nu-Metal dipshit on the radio and out seduced all Trip-hop before it. Fraser transforms into a chorus, her line becoming more and more unpredictable as the growling bass rises to swallow her. As she fades, the amorphous darkness that was hiding in the song overtakes the sound and all of the envy, anger, lust and greed of Mezzanine is finally released.

Mezzanine didn’t mark the end of Trip-hop or of Massive Attack, but it was a signpost that more mutations were needed for survival. Tricky never reached Maxinquaye’s heady heights again, Portishead would remain consistent, but elusive and Massive Attack would grow nearly as quiet as their Bristol compatriots. With Vowles’ departure, Massive Attack would never make something this outlandish, ambitious or perfect again. Even with fantastic tracks like “I Against I,” “Voodoo in My Blood” and “Paradise Circus,” Mezzanine seemed more and more like lightning in a bottle. Even for a band already awash in acclaim, its scattered nature and masochistic world view could have only worked at this exact moment. The planets had aligned, beaming in a force of sheer evil and sexiness. And then the world returned to normal. Except, of course, it couldn’t. Despite how odd it is, or more likely, because of it, the album’s influence can’t be understated. In the next few years, dozens of bands would take on some of its sickening slickness, with Deftone’s White Pony, Nine Inch Nails’ Still and Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R adding Massive Attack’s horrific seduction to their might. Listen again 20 years on and hear the trappings of EL-P’s space age production, the synthetic alternative R&B croon of James Blake, the micro house noodlings of Burial or basically everything about Gorillaz. It was something so powerful that it became the pinnacle of its genre while tearing its creators apart. With their self-immolation, they birthed something new. Like the prophetic “Angel” that introduced the album, Mezzanine was a rapturous end and beginning.

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