Listen to this track by Bristolian trip-hop representatives along with one-time Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil chanteuse Elizabeth Fraser. It’s “Teardrop”, the second single off of their, well, massive 1998 album Mezzanine. It remains to be their most commercially succesful set. Not bad for the supposed difficult third album, although it would prove to be difficult in other ways.
By the time of this album’s release, a couple of things had changed. First, trip hop as a genre was morphing, including more ambient electronica textures and traditional rock/pop structures. Second, things had become tense between the three members of the band, with conflicting priorities and contradictory directions in the studio delaying this album’s release. Founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles would depart during this period, due to the dreaded “creative differences”. One of those differences was being voted down for his assertion that the band should work with another singer on this track instead of Fraser; Madonna, who was excited to work with Massive Attack on this song. What would that have sounded like?
Yet, this song belied all the strife that surrounded the making of this record, in part thanks to the distinct and serene quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal, with lyrics written by her. Those lyrics have been (mis)heard and (mis)interpreted by listeners many years after its release. Maybe what makes this song so special is that it somehow goes past literal meaning completely anyway, and moves into an area of meaning where words aren’t even the point.
Listeners were still pretty compelled by the words of this song anyway, of course, and remain to be almost twenty years later. They are extremely evocative, and just as hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s the video for the song that drove the interpretation of this song for a lot of people, featuring an in utero foetus, a visual idea that sprung from the very heartbeat-like pulse of this tune, maybe. All of this got a lot of people talking about abortion. Why does the mere idea of a foetus seem to prompt that more so than representing the promise of birth? Curious.
Interestingly, it is this very graphic imagery that caught the attention of producer Bryan Singer, who was working up a little show called House, M.D. Not only was this tune used as the theme song (in North America only due to licensing issues), but the graphic effects found in the video provided the inspiration to many of the speical effects in the show; that internal close-up medical stuff that they show as House describes what’s happening inside the patient of of the week.
Apart from the imagery found in the video, I don’t think it follows that the song is inextricably connected to it. An important factor that may have affected the outcome when it came to writing this tune was Fraser’s relationship with Jeff Buckley, who drowned around the time this song was being developed. Fraser herself has said that on a certain level and in retrospect, this song is about Buckley and what his friendship meant to her. Even she engaged in some interpretation of this song, then. But with that context in mind, I get the feeling that it’s the physical act of her singing this song itself that connects with that emotional space more so than the actual lyrics do.
In this, we’re reminded of the limited nature of language, and that sometimes the sound a heart makes when in certain intense emotional spaces is more important than literal meanings of the words that happen to come out. In pop music alone, this certainly dates back to Little Richard’s Awopbopalobopawopbamboom, and possibly further back still. This connects with the idea of the delicate and very mysterious nature of life as we experience it, with many of the most meaningful things we find in life that evoke the most profound feelings in us being out of the reach of mere language.
This is why certain songs and pieces of music in general are so tied to the emotional chapters of our lives. They help us understand things better than anything that could be conveyed through mere words, even if we ourselves cannot express them.
After a few variations in line-up, Massive Attack is a going concern today, including fellow trip-hop practicioner and original member Tricky back in their ranks. You can find out more about them at massiveattack.co.uk.
For more about Elizabeth Fraser, you can read about how her writing was always tied up with her emotional state with lyrical intention being secondary, in this article from The Guardian from 2009, a time when she was getting back on her feet as a solo artist after a period of relative quiet from her.