How do you top greatness? This question has plagued the minds of the creative class since humanity first etched lines in the dirt. Where do you go once you've been hailed as a genius? Some simply up and quit, like My Bloody Valentine, who haven't made a record since releasing Loveless in 1991. Others use the pressure of expectations to turn their psychic coal into diamonds, succeeding in ways that defy their previous standards (see mid-electric-period Miles Davis). Most artists, however, take the middle road to mediocrity and just retread their achievements. This, unfortunately, applies to 100th Window.
Massive Attack have been making music for a long time, first as part of the Bristol Wild Bunch, spawning downtempo and Brit-hop, then as artists on their own. Through the years, the band has featured a revolving cast of players, with the creative and personal tension of core members Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall and Andrew Vowles fueling the fires of creativity and change. Though Massive Attack made records at a glacial pace (four proper records in fourteen years!), the group was always on the cutting edge of soul and sound science.
Massive circa 2003 is a different beast entirely. Whittled down through attrition and apathy to just Del Naja, the attack isn't so massive anymore. 100th Window presents a view into one man's paranoid psyche, and, though well-produced, it lacks the spark that made the previous albums classics. "Butterfly Caught" skitters between the speakers, pulsing to a click-track heart. Dub reggae is reimagined through a large plastic bottle on "Everywhen" and "Name Taken," liquid vocals dissolving into a cavernous beatspace. The emotional highlight of the album, "A Prayer for England," features guest vocalist Sinead O'Connor sounding angelic as the conscience of an unconscious country, but even this track lacks the stark sensuality, originality and danger that the group dynamic once brought.
These missing elements, however, don't make 100th Window a bad record. It's actually a good record, but that's the problem. Massive Attack was a great, innovative group, so anything less than that is a letdown. How do you top greatness? Well, sometimes you don't; you just have to settle for good.
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