Hugh Laurie, gaunt and bearded, limps down a hospital hallway as images from old medical textbooks fill the screen. Brad Pitt, ashy and greasy and still in his underwear, watches, horror-stricken, as flames consume his mother’s trailer. Keanu Reeves, bathed in a sickly green glow, wakes up just in time for his computer to tell him that the Matrix has him. A young and Reznor-haired Ryan Gosling imagines his family photos projected on the walls of a seedy Manhattan strip club.
Movie-soundtrack programmers figured it out almost immediately: If you want to conjure a certain vibe, you go directly to Mezzanine. The vibe in question isn’t an easy thing to define. It’s a feeling of ominous sensual mystery. It’s the feeling that something is about to happen. It could be sex or death or oblivion. You don’t know, and you’re stuck waiting. It’s the sound of anticipation.
It doesn’t just work in movies and TV shows, either. It works in actual lives. Mezzanine is an album that entered the cultural bloodstream upon arrival, and moments on it are etched so deeply into our own personal memories that just hearing the album means feeling a flood of sense-memory. I have this particular memory of hearing the beginning of “Teardrop,” over crappy Walkman headphones, while returning home from college for the first time. I was crammed into a terrifyingly tiny plane, the only kind that ever seemed to leave from the Syracuse airport, sweating and shaking, feeling like I was about to die. But as I heard that chiming harpsichord and that slow-tap drumbeat and Liz Fraser’s unearthly coo, I watched the sun setting behind the snow-lined pine trees on the border of the runway, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the moment. “Teardrop” seemed appropriate, both for the fear and for the sudden and unexpected moment of wonder. It’s a perfect song, one that soothes anxiety even as it complements it.
Massive Attack’s music had always found space for some combination of beauty and dread, but it had never done it like this before. Blue Lines and Protection, the two albums that preceded Mezzanine, only really sound slick and expansive when you hold Mezzanine up for comparison. Those albums combined sounds in ways that nobody had ever heard. Rap and reggae and dance and R&B were all finding common ground in the UK pop music of the era, and a group like Soul II Soul were essentially working from the same aesthetic building blocks that Massive Attack were, at least in the beginning. (They also shared a producer, Nellee Hooper.) But Massive Attack’s great innovation was to turn those sounds inward, to present them in a way that was full of doubt and longing.
Mezzanine took those same feelings and blew them all the way out. All those same sounds are present on Mezzanine, and they’re heavier and deeper than they’d ever been. The three members of Massive Attack had always been big fans of dub reggae, and they’d brought the dub innovator Mad Professor in to remix their entire Protection album. Mezzanine was the moment that they truly figured out how to use those disorienting sonic textures and layers in their own music, to feed the emotional resonance that they’d always been chasing. The reggae legend Horace Andy, a longtime Massive Attack collaborator, sings three songs on Mezzanine, and they’re all altered versions of his own old songs. So those tracks almost work the way dub versions might’ve done — taking these warm, welcoming old tracks and turning them into pure nightmare fuel.
There are new influences in there, too. Early-’80s postpunk is a big one. The original working title for Mezzanine was Damaged Goods, the title of Gang Of Four’s debut single, and there’s a Cure sample on “Man Next Door.” Those aren’t just signals. Mezzanine is an album shot through with the paranoia and claustrophobia of that early postpunk sound. Even as heavy and cinematic as Massive Attack’s version of postpunk may be, it’s also darker and more brittle than what we’d heard on the group’s two previous records. The basslines on Mezzanine are closer to what Jah Wobble was doing in Public Image Ltd. than they are to the reggae that had inspired Wobble in the first place.
Various different strains of goth are in there, too. The Cocteau Twins’ Fraser sings on a few songs, and her vaporous dreaminess adds moments of sighing relief that the album desperately needs. Fraser sounds desperately sad on “Teardrop,” a song that she reportedly recorded the same day that she found out her friend Jeff Buckley had drowned, but it’s a contemplative kind of sadness that changes the whole mood of the record. On the flipside, I don’t think Massive Attack would ever cop to being influenced by anything as at-the-time uncool as Nine Inch Nails, but the way the distorto-guitar rips through a song like “Angel” gives the same sort of cathartic rush as some of the grandest Trent Reznor moments.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about Mezzanine is that, while you can hear ghosts and echoes of all these previous influences, you can’t spot the seams. In a way they hadn’t managed to do on any of their previous records, the group took those sounds and turned them into one vast, cinematic whole. Like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, another roughly contemporaneous masterwork, Mezzanine takes disparate ideas and sample sources and blurs them all into one towering, monumental whole. There might be all these competing ideas at work on the album, but there’s a focus and cohesion that makes the album sound overwhelming.
It wasn’t easy for them to come up with this sound. The three members of Massive Attack, along with co-producer and de facto fourth member Neil Davidge, were constantly at one another’s throats through the whole recording process. A lot of the time, they couldn’t even work in the studio together. The original plan was to release the album in late 1997, but 3D couldn’t stop obsessively rearranging it. 3D and Mushroom reportedly got into a huge fight over who should sing on “Teardrop.” (3D wanted Fraser, while Mushroom, who’d been largely responsible for putting the track together in the first place, wanted Madonna — who, to be fair, would’ve probably also crushed it.) Maybe those internal tensions helped inform the sound of the album, or maybe they managed to make something that masterful in spite of whatever was going on among them. Whatever the case, it’s a staggering achievement of a record.
And Mezzanine is even more of a stunner when you think about it in the context of its moment. “Trip-hop” had entered the lexicon by 1998, and groups like Morcheeba and the Sneaker Pimps were finding success with a watered-down, boutique-appropriate version of Massive Attack’s older records. Dweebs like Thievery Corporation were on the come-up. Meanwhile, Massive Attack’s old peers were spinning out. Portishead were just easing into the decade-plus funk between their second and third albums, while former Massive Attack associate Tricky was losing his fastball, repeating himself to diminishing returns on records like 1998’s Angels With Dirty Faces. Massive Attack might’ve been on a downward slide, too; Protection had certainly been no Blue Lines. But with Mezzanine, they defied both their own trajectory and the prevailing winds of the time. They went the opposite direction, and they made their masterpiece.
It killed them. Mushroom left the group upon the completion of Mezzanine, and while Daddy G remained, he seemed to gradually dissociate himself, leaving 3D mostly in charge. The next two albums, 2003’s 100th Window and 2010’s Heligoland, were pale reflections of what had come before, and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll ever get back to that peak again. Still, they made Mezzanine. And virtually every piece of dark, obsessive, anxious, cinematic, genre-agnostic music that has come after owes them some kind of debt.