I have loved Massive Attack ever since I first heard "Unfinished Sympathy," an exquisite song on a good soundtrack for a terrible movie (Sliver). A few years later, after Blue Lines, Protection, and Mezzanine fell into my heavy rotation, I knew I had found something big, a 1990's counterpart to my favorite electronic band: Depeche Mode.
But a lot has happened since then for Massive Attack, arguably not all for the better. 100th Window, while good, was not perfect, perhaps partly because Robert Del Naja, Neil Davidge, and Horace Andy were the only carryovers from Mezzanine. The Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed) soundtrack was forgettable, "Future Proof" became a pitch for Absolut vodka, and "Teardrop" became the theme for a CSI spinoff. Massive Attack had lost some of its mystique by going very nearly mainstream.
Heligoland comes seven years after 100th Window, and Massive Attack's obsessive fan base--already attuned to the detail and layers of production from previous releases--is not always easy to please. But for the most part, Heligoland delivers, with carnival music samples and the mock clown album cover suggesting the alienation, commercialism, and lost innocence of contemporary life.
The album's opening tracks, "Pray for Rain" and "Babel," would seem completely incongruous on any other record. "Pray for Rain" paints a dreary backdrop with hung-over vocals and a brief, hopeful interlude of soaring disco beats. "Babel," meanwhile, buzzes and thumps with electronic noises, like an unreleased Orbital track with pop aspirations. The rest of the album is equally all over the map, with "Paradise Circus" especially affecting, plodding resignedly to the sound of deep bass and syncopated claps, as a cathartic string section kicks in at about 3:40 to relieve the oppression. Daddy G's only track is the masterful "Splitting the Atom," a dystopian dirge pulled along by synthesized strings and another insistent bass line. Closing Heligoland is the seductively monstrous "Atlas Air," reminiscent of the trailing end of Mezzanine. Missteps include the somewhat monotonous "Rush Minute" and "Flat on the Blade," which is a little too clearly indebted to Hail to the Thief era Radiohead.
Overall, Heligoland is a strong album, though not the equal of Blue Lines (whose multitude of influences are unlikely to be revisited) and the monolithic Mezzanine. If Heligoland comes up a bit short at times, perhaps that speaks to the difficulty of living up to Massive Attack's legacy, now twenty years in the making.