Massive Attack, the Bristol-based collective whose dubbed-out hip-hop permeated the culture of the 1990s, launched a European and US tour this year, which culminated last week at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Mezzanine XXI, as the tightly choreographed show was titled, marked the 21st anniversary of the eponymous record, which Massive Attack played in its entirety – albeit re-sequenced. Mezzanine was released in April of 1998, itself a year emblematic of an ebullient ’90s-era zeitgeist. New Labour and the guitar-strumming UK prime minister, Tony Blair, were riding high; the Eurozone grew increasingly interlinked; and millions logged on to a new-fangled service called AOL. Also: the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, still caroused in the palaces of Baghdad; US president Bill Clinton weathered impeachment; and a young artist named Britney Spears released a song called ‘Baby One More Time’. 1998 was the high-water mark of a frothy neoliberal fantasy that seemed within reach.
Simpler times, quainter times: these are all referenced in early frames of Massive Attack’s precision lighting and video programme – which Robert Del Naja made in close collaboration with British artist Adam Curtis – and in cheeky pre-show music that included anodyne gems such as Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ (1998) and Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ (1997). In the context of such sentimental fare, we are reminded, Mezzanine hit listeners like a ton of bricks. It remains a shadowy noir built on meandering sitars, buzzsaw guitars, throbbing sub-bass and ethereal lyrics meant to create tension that builds like a fever. The album opener, ‘Angel’, was used to harrowing effect in the film Snatch (2000) as itinerant boxer Mickey O’Neil’s (Brad Pitt) mother’s caravan was burned to the ground. Unlike earlier records, which relied heavily on samples and synthesizers, Mezzanine marked a foray into subtle instrumentation and lyrics evoking a claustrophobic urban miasma.
I wrote a book recently, for Bloomsbury’s ‘33 1/3’ series, about Massive Attack’s 1991 debut, Blue Lines. There, I argued that, while that record was in many ways the group’s funkiest and most ground-breaking, Mezzanine, in all of its cinematic glory, was a definite work of art that was a harbinger of the darker human tragedy of 9/11 that was lurking around the corner. One animation from the current tour depicts a clunky, digital-flight-simulator view of a plane cruising ominously towards skyscrapers. Curtis’s highbrow-vapourwave stylings are evident here, in the deft use of archival footage and ALLCAPS declamations about geopolitics and global surveillance.
Curtis and Massive Attack collaborated previously, in 2013, for an integrated multichannel/audio experience in Manchester and New York. Tonally, there are many overlaps between the two performances. But Mezzanine XXI was tighter, more focused on one moment in history, and one sonic statement. There was no opening act, no encore and, with few exceptions, the group was dimly lit. The set-list, which included covers typical of the band’s early record bins (The Cure, Cocteau Twins, Ultravox, The Velvet Underground), took on a new narrative cohesion, many songs bracketed by textual clues. The message cut through with the subtlety of Soviet propaganda: once upon a time, technology was going to set us free but now we are trapped in an algorithmic hall of mirrors, an endless circuit of consumption that distracts us from the horrors beyond our borders, beyond the ‘pleasuredome’.
Fair enough, though sometimes the messaging was simplistic to the point of incoherence: a leitmotif about 2D images from the past coaxing us not to care, preventing the building of a better world. From the outset, Massive Attack professed in interviews a benevolent if half-baked leftism, while Curtis seems to be something of a modernist apologist. Indeed, it was the band themselves who were inviting viewers down memory lane. To that extent, I entered the venue excited – to hear Horace Andy croon ‘Exchange’ or Elizabeth Fraser’s seraphic ‘Teardrop’ – but also sceptical. Was this simply a Gen-X version of Rolling Stones or Billy Joel: the old boys trotting out the hits to make a mint? (Tickets cost more than US$100.)
Such fears were periodically confirmed. The 50-somethings around me pumped their fists and hooted amid shocking imagery of aerial bombardment and wounded Syrians and Afghanis. They danced awkwardly (if jubilantly) as a still from the recent El Paso mass shooting pulsed on screen. Waving their iPhones like lighters, they took videos and selfies and sloshed about drunkenly, even as the screens displayed ad copy for Oxycontin, which explicitly suggested that we use our digital and chemicals addictions to narcotize ourselves into inaction. I had to ask a group to stop talking and try to pay attention to a sensory assault straight out of dystopian drama A Clockwork Orange (1971) – which, it seemed, was still insufficient for them.
But that was a matter for the audience. For their part, Massive Attack seemed to anticipate this and directed their address squarely at the well-to-do folks in the room: those who had benefited from the policies of presidents Clinton and George Bush and prime ministers Blair and David Cameron; those who ostensibly run governments and corporate boardrooms but, as the pharmaceutical copy goes, seem to have ‘nodded out’. In predicting the nostalgic lure of such a tour, the group sought less to agitate than to comfort. As Curtis noted of the project: ‘The show tells the story of the strange journey we have all been on over the past 20 years since Mezzanine was released: how we have moved into a backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move.’
Rather than simply rehearse time-worn standards from a generation’s salad days, Massive Attack asks us to consider what we have done with the space between, and where might we go. While it was a rare gift to witness versions of these songs, many of which were given room to breathe or added chromatic depth, the mood at Radio City was urgent, less revivalism than activism. Until this week, I only had a hazy sense of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘dialectical image’, wherein the past is an ever-accumulating wave of human dealings, and history can be accessed, now, in moments of rupture, through practices that line up temporal gateways which might help us see anew. Mezzanine XXI changed the way I will hear that record, but also the way I will understand a year in time, and the tragedy that it portended.
Main image: Robert Del Naja, aka 3D, of Massive Attack performs live on stage during the Mezzanine XXI tour at The O2 Arena, 22 February 2019, London, England. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Jim Dyson