Massive Attack – “Unfinished Sympathy”

So…guess who just bought a ticket to the UK so he can walk the streets of London at 2 in the morning with this track blaring on his headphones?

Yeah, this guy right here.

When I first started this blog I mentioned that I was a big fan of trip-hop, a wonderful little genre that came out of the United Kingdom in the early 1990s. Channeling the island’s rainy dreariness and good old British angst, trip-hop was just the kick for indifferent, drugged-up twentysomethings who came from well-off families but tried too hard to be jaded and alienated social outcasts….like meeeeeee!

And leading the charge was Massive Attack. The crew from Bristol, composed of members 3D, Daddy G, Mush, and Tricky Kid, along with close collaborators Shara Nelson and Horace Andy, caused a stir in 1991 with Blue Lines. Coming from musical roots in hip-hop (3D, G, and Tricky were known for rapping and deejay sets), dub and reggae (Andy), and R&B / soul (Nelson), the album was a unique sonic melange. Dark, seductive, slow, and just a bit dangerous, Blue Lines was famed for it’s production, which was dubbed the “Bristol Sound,” and the crew gained steam in the UK. Soon, the “Bristol Sound” became “trip-hop,” and then went on to be the finest British export since Fawlty Towers.

Blue Lines is something of a prototypical trip-hop album. It’s a dance record that blends lounge, dub, hip-hop and R&B music with more attitude and moodiness than a prom queen whose best friend wore the same dress. It’s a bit less intense than later trip-hop albums, like Portishead’s Dummy and Massive Attack’s own Mezzanine, but that doesn’t mean it’s inferior.

“Unfinished Sympathy” is one of my favorite songs, trip-hop or otherwise. One of the faster-paced tracks on Blue Lines, this one is full of motion and wonder. There are two forces at work on this one: the hypnotic vocals of Shara Nelson and the forceful piano and string-driven tune. Throughout “Sympathy” these two forces are constantly competing. There are moments in the song where these forces work with each other and coalesce into brilliance, as Shara’s lyrics and the music shines brightly together, but at times they also work independently of each other. Shara sings and her words grip you, and when she trails off, the music responds, becoming bigger and more enveloping. It is just as important and prominent as she is.

It’s a brilliant track.

Originally posted on my old blog, Emaciated Wildebeest, on November 10, 2010.


  1. […] Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley were taking note of what their fellow Bristol mates Massive Attack was doing with the new sound they introduced: the brilliantly-titled “Bristol sound,” a […]

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