One Song: Massive Attack’s Protection [by Shawn Charles Baker]

On the first cool nights is when it’s the loudest. Through the open windows the Night whispers a message. The Night often has the will to speak, however it requires those who can sense this intention to provide it with a voice. If you can find this voice then you can learn from it. This sounds a lot more esoteric than it actually is. If you can simply learn to pay attention then you can learn some interesting things from the Night. There are many different voices the Night speaks through, but perhaps the most eloquent is the music of Bristol, England’s Massive Attack.
There is a certain otherworldly, 2AM tone on Protection, the title track of the band’s second record. It is mysterious. It is dangerous. It asks questions that most are unable to answer. This is especially true for me, as the particulars of how I first encountered this song still haunt me to this day.
The first time I heard the stilted beat drag darkness over a telltale sample from James Brown’s classic “The Big Payback” I was on a tour bus in pastoral Bath, England. My wife and I were on a three-week adventure across the pond and we’d decided to spend one day doing ‘the tourist thing’.  A tour bus would help us knock out several sites we would otherwise probably have been unable to fit in as we prepared to hop the Channel to Ireland. The bus began early in the morning and hit Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and finally the ancient city of Bath. With all of the activity bookended by a lot of driving it’d been a busy day and by the time we hit the turn-around destination we were feeling it. The tour guides showed the group around the city the Romans built on top of the area’s naturally occurring geothermal springs sometime in circa AD 50. They did an excellent job guiding us through the small, winding roads and through buildings that were equally Medieval and modern at the same time. After this requisite history the guides turned us loose for forty minutes or so before we had to meet back at the bus to begin the long journey back to Piccadilly Circus. I don’t really remember how my wife and I spent that time, but we were two of the first back on the bus. I fired up the Sony discman (still a year or two before the iPod would antiquate this device) and popped open Protection, settling into my seat to stare out the window and allow the music to seep in. I don’t know how long we sat there but it must have been just over forty-eight minutes because as I faded in and out of a semi-conscious state the disc began again and as that first wave of familiarity with it gave way once more to the fluid, almost underwater guitar flourish of Protection my peripheral senses keyed me in to the fact that something was happening around me. I opened my eyes and sat up, not yet ready to remove the music from my ears. My wife tugged my sleeve and the headphones came off. She quickly filled me in – one of the other passengers on the tour – a middle-aged woman who had been traveling alone – was missing. Apparently she’d struck up a traveler’s acquaintance with another lone woman on the voyage and the two had sat together since Windsor. As I slipped into the present this other woman spoke frantically to one of the tour guides, pointing out that her temporary companion’s purse and shopping bags were still beneath the seat she’d been in. No one was panicked, but as more and more of our fellow travelers returned to the bus they became engulfed in the same enigmatic, ominous atmosphere the rest of us felt at the mysterious disappearance.
The tour guides attempted to dissuade our fears. They assured us they were doing everything they could. I went back to my headphones, my wife’s arm coiled tight around mine in a moment of absolute uncertainty. I hit play and the Night began to whisper again, carried on the breeze, translated by Tracey Thorn’s voice in my ear.
After this night Protection took on an especially forlorn air. Bath is only twenty-one kilometers from Bristol, and perhaps because of this proximity it felt as if the musicians were particularly attuned to the area’s mystery, that it was in fact this ingredient that helped to elevate their tone beyond the late night, chill out tags so commonly associated with Massive Attack. They – and Protection – were bound to become mythic because they were born of a place and time that bridged the quaint pre-internet world with the world we know today. This is not unlike the Picts of the country approximately seven-hundred miles north of Bath; a Celtic tribal society that long ago helped bridge the gap between the mystic cultures of the tribal state and the reason and commerce of the city-state empires that would follow. Likewise the song became a bridge to the invisible world that surrounds us all the time, doorways into it opening and closing at random, the only one of us who knows how, when and where to find them, the Night.
Shawn Charles Baker is a writer, filmmaker, and musician living in Southern California.

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