It’s very difficult to come up with a grand narrative of trip-hop – even its Wikipedia page doesn’t really offer one . Furthermore, the genre itself stands on tenuous ground. The arguable “kings” of trip-hop, Massive Attack, have been dubious of the term since its inception, and the genre’s most iconic features – methodical slowness, deep bass, breakbeats – can easily be found in other genres. Of course, all genres are rather fragile if you seriously interrogate their borders, but this fragility is often undergirded by some kind of narrative that more or less holds the genre together, like pop being defined by “what’s popular” or blues being defined by “having the blues.” Trip-hop lacks such a narrative and it shows in the music. If you assemble a playlist of songs by alleged trip-hop artists, the only thing that will truly persist is the allegation, the label. Song content will vary wildly, almost chaotically. Morcheeba‘s Head Up High is a notable intervention into that chaos.
Using love and romance as a general compass, Morcheeba ground their songs in intimacy and the quest to acquire, enjoy and maintain it. It’s a strange move for an aggressively unfocused genre like trip-hop, where even process and production are inconstant, but their approach works. On the opening track and single, “Gimme Your Love,” driven by scratches and Skye Edwards‘ subtly soulful voice, Morcheeba draws the listener in despite keeping the song at a noticeable equilibrium; the song never accelerates, decelerates, amplifies or hushes. This humble beginning is flanked by the lively second track, “Face of Danger,” which features a slyly sassy performance from Edwards and a defiant guest verse from Jurassic 5 veteran Chali 2na. The guitar solo that proceeds Chali‘s verse is a bit subdued in comparison to the preceding vocals, but the song maintains its energy to the end.
“Face of Danger” is followed by “Call it Love,” a collaborative track that is assisted by White Denim guitarist and vocalist James Petralli. The song, a blues duet, works in and of itself, but its placement on the album sharply disrupts any momentum the album might have had. Its content – love – is the only thing that anchors it to the album. This problem of counter-productive placement manifests again when Petralli assists on “I’ll Fall Apart” and “Finally Found You.” Though individually well-crafted, these songs simply don’t cohere to the rest of album. They feel very appendaged, like a prosthetic limb on a complete skeleton.
Other collaborations are much more productive. For instance, Nature Boy Jim Kelly‘s appearance on “Release Me Now” actually saves the song, injecting it with some much-needed energy. Delivering his verse in an excited whisper, you can feel him hyping himself up for the song’s liberating chorus. His approach notably differs from Edwards‘ monotone opening verse. The strongest collaboration is with French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux on the song “Hypnotized”. Here we see some of the Godfrey brothers’ best production. Their combination of funk and folk elements mixes beautifully with Edwards‘ surreal images and Tijoux‘s patiently-delivered rhymes. The result is tantalizing.
The album highlights are “Make Believer” and “Do You Good.” The former is a radioactive track that feverishly builds without pretensions of being epic. Edwards pushes her voice to its heights here, but the real stars of the show are the Godfrey brothers, who layer the track very patiently, forgoing maximalism and allowing the constituent sounds to mingle at their leisure, like nervous teenagers at a high school prom. This approach makes the apex of the track infinitely more rewarding. “Do You Good” is the album’s penultimate song, right before the final Petralli collaboration. Though there are no noticeable vocal alterations, Edwards’ voice takes on a mystical quality that makes it strangely comforting; her offer of love feels truly genuine.
All in all, Head Up High is an admirable effort that emphasizes the trip-hop trio’s awing versatility. While this variability isn’t packaged as well as it could be, – those James Petralli songs could have been released as a separate EP, perhaps – it is impressive nonetheless, especially since it mostly coheres. By enabling this coherence through a consistent subject, Morcheeba gives trip-hop a narrative it never had. Narratives are far from necessary, and this is just one possible narrative among others, but there is something refreshing about it.
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