Twelve years ago, with George Bush père in the White House and a U.S.-led war winding down in Iraq, the Bristol, England, collective Massive Attack released Blue Lines, its debut album and the acknowledged prototype for what would become trip-hop. Soon after, the group bowdlerized its own name, briefly jettisoning “Attack” in an odd sort of peace protest. Now, with Bush fils keeping Poppy’s old seat warm — and with the United States once again threatening war in Iraq — the Bristol boys are back with a new album and, naturally, a vocal opposition to the looming conflict. (Massive Attack cofounder Robert “3D” del Naja signed anti-war ads in NME.) The temptation, then, is to search the junk drawer for a comfortable cliché — something along the lines of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” would seem to fit here splendidly.
Except that it doesn’t. Because they don’t. See, Massive Attack 2003 is not Massive Attack 1991. Although the group influenced an entire genre of musicians in the years since Blue Lines — from Portishead to Björk to Beth Orton — it also left in its wake a trail of discarded pieces. Vocalists Shara Nelson and Tricky moved on in the early ’90s, and cofounder Andre “Mushroom” Vowles quit the group not long after 1998’s mesmerizing Mezzanine. By late 2001, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall had stepped down (temporarily, at least), whittling Massive Attack from a they to a he — del Naja (with support from Mezzanine coproducer Neil Davidge). And if there’s anything to be learned from this paring-down, it’s this: del Naja is Massive Attack’s Brooding One.
Taking its name from a cult book about the death of privacy in the Information Age, the stark, spooky 100th Window is easily the bleakest of MA’s four albums. Intricate, precise and as beautiful as ever, the disc’s production is woven throughout with Middle Eastern strings and hypnotic bass. Lyrically, though, the album drifts from apocalyptic and dark (“Future Proof”) to sexy and dark (“Small Time Shot Away”); in any case, it is always dark. Always, that is, except when Sinead O’Connor shows up. Despite her (not entirely undeserved) reputation for hysterics, O’Connor provides the album’s most soothing, hopeful moments, urging positivity on “When Your Soul Sings” (Lovingly rearrange the thoughts that make you blue) and updating “Stand by Your Man” (!) on “Special Cases.” Even when she flirts with self-parody — on the earnest, save-the-children plea “A Prayer for England” — O’Connor reminds us that it was always her raw vulnerability and naked emotion that gave her strength. Paired with some refreshing optimism, it’s also what keeps 100th Window from being unbearably grim.