Monday, February 11, 1991

Massive Attack “Unfinished Sympathy” released

Unfinished Sympathy

Massive Attack

Writer(s): Grant Marshall, Andrew Vowles, Robert Del Naja, Shara Nelson (see lyrics here)

Released: February 11, 1991

First Charted: February 23, 1991

Peak: 13 UK, 95 AU (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 0.4 UK

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 42.0 video, 77.43 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Massive Attack formed in 1988, pioneering “a new style of dance music, commonly termed ‘trip-hop.’” XFM Their debut album, 1991’s Blue Lines, was released “to widespread critical acclaim and has gone on to be hugely influential.” XF The album’s “standout track,” XFM is “Unfinished Sympathy,” which is “recognized as a pioneering song in the development of British dance music.” WK

They released the song as a single in February 1991, although they temporarily scrapped the name Massive Attack in favor of the less controversial “Massive.” The term “massive attack” had been deemed unpatriotic by the BBC in light of the Gulf War and the band risked the song being banned by radio. WK They also didn’t want to be seen as supporting the Gulf War. XFM

It is “one of the most moving pieces of dance music ever written. It begins with a simple slow beat before bursting into life with percussion and strings. Shara Nelson’s vocals define the track, with a wonderfully rich and emotive voice that sounds like it would be more commonly found on a soul track coming out of Detroit rather than a dance track from Bristol.” XFM Lyrically the song “finds Nelson longing for her companion, but wary because she has been hurt before.” SF

The use of a string section and other orchestral elements was considered innovative in the electronic dance genre. SF It was originally played on synthesizers, but band member DJ Mushroom said it “sounded too tacky, so we thought we may as well use real strings. The orchestra definitely changed the feeling of the song, making it heavier and deeper with more feeling.” WK

The video, directed by Baillie Walsh, was one of the first to use a continuous shot following singer Shara Nelson as she walked through a Los Angeles neighborhood oblivious to her surroundings. WK It has been copied many times since, perhaps most notably by The Verve with “Bittersweet Symphony.” XFM


  • SF Songfacts
  • WK Wikipedia
  • XFM Mike Walsh (editor) (2010). The XFM Top 1000 Songs of All Time. Elliott & Thompson Limited: London, England. Page 266.

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First posted 10/26/2021.

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