Even before you delve into the album’s ominous, stark atmosphere, everything you need to know about Massive Attack’s landmark, 180-turn of a third album, Mezzanine, can be found in the title, and to some extent, in the unsettling artwork.
A quick internet search of the word ‘mezzanine,’ defines it as a “low story between two others in a building, typically between the ground and first floors.” In the context of the album, it’s the sound of a band coming to terms with the fact that it has outgrown its roots, and beginning to move away from itself—Mezzanine is the space between what it was, and what it was on the cusp of evolving into.
Twenty years removed from its original release, time has been incredibly kind to Mezzanine.
You cannot say the same thing of Massive Attack’s previous two full-lengths. While Blue Lines and Protection are both classic records and incredibly important to the development of the ‘trip-hop’ movement in the UK during the early 1990s, they both sound like total products of their era; Mezzanine, however, still sounds as fresh, and as harrowing, as it did in 1998.
It may not sound like a product of its era, but that darkness captured throughout is a complete product of its environment—not only is it a record that is the sound of a band moving away from itself, it is also the sound of tension with little, if any, release.
It speaks volumes that the working title was Damaged Goods.
Long gone are the whimsical and blunted sounds of Blue Lines and Protection; instead, they are replaced by something much, much more menacing—you hear it almost immediately as the low, rumbling bass line of the song’s iconic open track, “Angel,” begins. “Angel” may as well be a mission statement for Mezzanine—along side that rumbling bass comes skittering percussion, eventually making way for live drums, and those infamous electric guitar snarls that bring the song to its cacophonic, unnerving peak.
It’s only on the instrumental track “Exchange,” as well as the reprise of it that arrives at the end of the record, that the group backslides slightly into that jaunty, less oppressive and more free-wheeling sound that they mastered on their previous releases. As a whole, Mezzanine is a relatively cohesive record, which is pretty impressive given then tensions within the group during the recording sessions—recorded over a lengthy span of time with producer Neil Davidge, the core trio of Massive Attack at this point, Grant Marshall, Robert Del Naja, and Andrew Vowles were barely functioning as a group; it’s well documented that when one member of the group was working in the studio, the other two were not present.
Those tensions caused serious rifts in the group.
With Vowles leaving the group after the record was completed, and Marshall departing before the band’s maligned, fourth record, 100th Window was released in 2003. It’s those tensions, though, that also helped create the paranoid, dissonant sound that makes Mezzanine what it is.
The first four songs on Mezzanine were, over time, released as singles (all of them appear on the group’s 2006 retrospective Collected); but it’s the aforementioned “Angel,” as well as “Tear Drop,” that made this one of the band’s most successful and enduring.
While some people may only know “Tear Drop” for its myriad uses in popular culture—best known to some as the theme to television’s “House M.D,” the song is exponentially more than that.
A source of contention for the band itself, it’s said that Vowles was strongly lobbying for Madonna to sing the vocals, and went as far as sending a rough demo to her for consideration; however, Marshall and Del Naja had someone different in mind, and they won.
Recorded, in part, on the day she found out that Jeff Buckley1 drowned in the Wolf River, Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal vocals give the song both a mournful, as well an other worldly quality that is unrivaled. She also appears in the album’s second half on the spooky and slinky sounding “Black Milk,” as well as the pulsating “Group Four.”
Mezzanine is, in a sense, structured to rise and fall, with very little respite in between.
If “Exchange” serves as that break, the album tumbles right back into that darkness on “Dissolved Girl”—a song that isn’t based around as much unsettling dread as “Angel,” but mirrors it in its ability to explode into huge, distended electric guitar roars.
Massive Attack was clearly never the same after this, and for many years, was simply a Robert Del Naja solo project—arriving roughly five years later, 100th Window took it further away from what it once was synonymous with, plunging it into further, swirling, chaotic sounding darkness. Marshall and Del Naja would later collaborate again on the underwhelming, but long gestating Heligoland, which was finally released in 2010.
If the popular singles have brought you to Mezzanine, twenty years after its original release, it is the kind of album that is worth consuming from start to finish.
Easily parsed out into small portions, it is astonishing how well this album is structured as it runs its course, especially since its frontloaded with all of its singles. Yes, the darkness and suspicion nearly every song is steeped in is practically unrelenting, so in a sense, Mezzanine is a record that isn’t for the faint of heart; this isn’t an easy record to hear, but it also never loses its accessibility.
The diminishing returns of latter day Massive Attack has, for the most part, not soiled the name or the legacy, and it goes without saying that Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine, are all unfuckwithable, but for completely different reasons; they all capture that perfect moment in time.
And here, it is the portrait of fracture and tension—three people who could barely stand to be in the same room as one another, still somehow cared enough, and were able to put together a defining artistic achievement.
1- It is long rumored that while Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser were friends, they were also, at one time, romantically involved—something Buckley alludes to on the song “Morning Theft,” found on his posthumously released Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. He currently writes “The Column of Disquiet” for the recently launched Next Ten Words, and his writing has appeared on Spectrum Culture and in River Valley Woman.
He is a vegan, a huge jerk, and above all else, a cool rabbit dad.