Massive Attack’s landmark 1991 debut album, Blue Lines, was a rich, seamless fusion of musical and cultural references: dub-based U.K. sound systems, classic American pop and soul, and the brash, fearless ingenuity of precocious club kids. The album not only marked a turning point in the British music underground, it also changed the Brit-pop landscape immeasurably, launching the careers of Shara Nelson and Tricky, reintroducing the reggae legend Horace Andy to a new generation, and laying the foundation for Portishead and the whole trip-hop genre. Massive Attack’s 1994 follow-up, Protection, would likely have been a disappointment even if it was a rock-solid effort. It wasn’t. With the exception of two tracks co-written by and featuring the lead vocals of Everything but the Girl’s Tracey Thorn, much of Protection felt undernourished and unfinished.
The trio must have known something was off, because only months after releasing Protection, it took the unprecedented step of having the dub icon Mad Professor do this remixed version of the album (now reissued in the United States). The difference is astonishing. Mad Professor has taken Massive Attack back to the source — dub — and in the process transformed an indifferent statement into a formidable, deeply rewarding challenge.
There’s sex in the music now — the evocation of grinding hips, bellies rubbed together and gyrating pelvises. The revamped, newly extended intros are teasing foreplay; the deepened grooves (pumped-up bass, glorious percussive flourishes, spacey effects, crunching beats) fuck with and then heighten the melodies. Mad Professor spins off into Cocteau Twins territory by sampling voices and phrases, then detaching them from the familiar. He distills lyrics into their essence before discarding the husks of actual words. The unmasked emotion is the jumping-off point.
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Nowhere is that more obvious than on the retooled title track. After the Professor slices, dices and modifies Thorn’s performance, the simmering defiance that originally rang in her words of comfort is supplemented by desolation and unresolved tension. Her disembodied voice becomes a cry for help beneath the murk. And, yes, it’s still sexy.
The paradox between the ethereal and the earthly is what Mad Professor has restored to the music, thereby strapping on the aesthetic gloves that Massive Attack had tossed aside. The result is sinewy, emotion-filled grooves that you can chill to, smoke blunts to or make love to. But you can’t just shrug them off.