Why Do I Listen to Massive Attack? (A Tepid Endorsement of Heligoland)

Because I don’t pay much attention to genre (because I more or less have a seething disdain for it), I’ve never really understood what “trip-hop” is. According to the internet, though, Massive Attack is a “legendary trip-hop duo.” Fair enough. Is Portishead also trip-hop? And if so, is trip-hop music for people to listen to while doing tons of heroin (when, of course, they’re not listening to shoegaze)? As much as I enjoy Portishead, I feel like heroin addicts are getting more out of their music than I am. I’ll ask Courtney Love the next time I see her.

I don’t do heroin, by the way, but I do tend to enjoy, in the right moments, the music of both Portishead and Massive Attack. Perhaps it’s because both bands are pretty widely outside the context of the music I usually listen to; that is, before I met these two bands, I never entertained the notion of becoming totally depressed to a beat before. But I had some friends in college who had thought to become bummed to a beat and they turned me on to Massive Attack. It pays to have an open mind.

And how is it that Massive Attack’s music is suitable background music for parties and great music for become totally depressed? I guess some people get the same effect from the Smiths, but I’d rather do heroin (and a lot of other things) than support Morrissey’s Morrissey addiction.

Although I have most of the Massive Attack albums, I will confess that there are only two that I listen to with any sort of regularity: Mezzanine and this year’s Heligoland, a name that is clearly a compound word derived from “Helicopter” and “Legoland” and which is – coincidentally, I’m sure – also the name of an archipelago off the coast of Germany. Mezzanine is quite rightly regarded as a 1990s must-have album and, well, I don’t know what people think of Heligoland (except that Pitchfork didn’t like it, which is irrelevant) so I’ll just tell you what I think.

It’s pretty good.

Well, it’s “pretty good, but…” and the “but” here is this: “but” I listen to Massive Attack for very weird reasons, probably not the same reasons the Pitchfork reviewer does and probably not the same reasons you do, whoever you are. When I’m stuck in my car (which happens a lot here in Los Angeles. I don’ t know if you non-L.A. people have heard this or not, but traffic here is really awful) and want a little change of pace, I like the way Heligoland fades in and out of the background, like pop music that’s too depressed to be pop music set over a beat that it’s too depressed to be hip-hop or really any kind of electronic music that I’d like. I could put Heligoland on at a party and my friends and I could converse over it and tune in once in a while (during the really good bits) and say, “Hey, this is pretty good.” And then it will remind us that Portishead’s Third was even better and we’ll probably listen to that. I don’t need to engage with a lot of Massive Attack music to enjoy it, but I enjoy it when I take the time to engage with it.

Now I know I’ve ranted time and time again to the effect that you should never listen to music that is only good when you’re not paying attention to it. But, I plan to split the hell out of a hair here and say this: Heligoland isn’t only good when I’m not paying attention to it. It’s pretty good all the time, if you like that sort of thing. But it’s good music that I often put on and ignore. I realize the difference is minute there, but why not call it a comment on the utterly hollow nature of criticism and move on? (Seriously, the only people who think we need professional criticism are professional critics, of which I am not one. I’m an exceedingly amateur critic, and if you ever gave me money to do this, I’d only get worse out of some misguided attempt to retain the credibility I have with…well, my own fuckin’ ego, I guess.) The real difference is that there are bands that I don’t like because I have to ignore them to tolerate them and Massive Attack is a band that I like to ignore a lot even though I also like them when I’m not ignoring them. Cleared it right up for you, didn’t I? I live to serve.

Here’s the thing: there’s lots to like about Heligoland: TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe makes  a guest appearance, as does Damon Albarn. And it looks like guest spots are the only place I’ll get to hear new performances from Martina Topley-Bird for a while (please, if you know or are Ms. Topley-Bird, take this as a plea to make another solo album. Anything was awesome and totally underrated), so Heligoland is providing me with a much-appreciated service in that regard as well.

I guess Heligoland does for me pretty much exactly what I want Massive Attack to do for me. I get the sense, from scanning other reviews in a completely half-assed manner (seriously, I Googled a couple just now. See? Amateur!), that I’m in the minority here. I’m not hailing Heligoland as Album of the Year (that honor has already gone in a landslide tie to the Hold Steady and the National), but I’ve never wanted album of the year stuff from Massive Attack. It would be weird for me to like one of their albums that much. What do I want from Massive Attack? Music that gives me some sense of what heroin users who frequent chic nightclubs might experience (pretty specific, I know. And yet, they deliver). I guess I mean that I want a sense of that sexy heroin rush people get before shit goes all Requiem for a Dream on them*. And that, to me, is what Heligoland is, apart from a German archipelago populated entirely by sentient Lego helicopters.

*Only a total dumbfuck would take this review as some sort of incitement to take heroin. Don’t take heroin. It’s all fun and games until your arm gets disturbingly infected, subsequently amputated, and your girlfriend has to dildo-wrestle other women for live audiences in order to support the habit.

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One thought on “Why Do I Listen to Massive Attack? (A Tepid Endorsement of Heligoland)

  1. “…a band that I like to ignore a lot even though I also like them when I’m not ignoring them” might be a good description of what Trip-Hop is supposed to be. I feel that way about a few Morcheeba albums, Portishead’s Dummy, and about three songs by Zero 7. If you can only enjoy it without paying attention it’s probably mediocre jazz or electronica, and if you have to pay attention to it, it’s probably acid-jazz, broken-ass music, or something weird generated by Mike Patton.

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