What does departure sound like? Or invention? Does breaking away from the commonly accepted standards have a distinct tone? What if the difference isn’t literally different, but is just a rearrangement of things familiar to us? What effects does this have, if any at all? Sometimes those unique examples stand on their own as an island, and other times that strand of beach stretches out rather than ending back on itself.
#78 “Unfinished Sympathy” by Massive Attack. This remarkable single from 1991 is from what is now seen as the first trip hop album, “Blue Lines”. That genre went on to have a broad effect later on in the decade as many other groups and artists sampled sweet morsels from its style. “Unfinished Sympathy” itself has also been called by many one of the best songs ever.
Unlike the driving beats of house music that blared from Europe at the time, this single rings much differently. Replace the steady drum and bass with a polyrhythmic backbeat, accompany your synth sounds with “classical” instruments like strings and piano, keep a vaguely hip hop feel to it, and mix it like a mad witch’s brew and you have what is called “trip hop”.
Ahead of its time and so cooly moody, “Unfinished Sympathy” embodies all of this. Though the origins of its style stretch back, this song can be seen as the spark of life that spawned an avant garde genre. Even Tina Turner couldn’t help herself and covered it a handful of years later.
Accompanying this complex and atmospheric dynamic is a simple but evocative video. As the singer Shara Nelson walks down the streets of Bristol, it’s as if the music is her mood reacting to and embodied by the world around her.