I told one of my co-workers, a fellow music enthusiast, at my nighttime bookstore gig that I had picked up the latest CD from Tricky. He looked back at me with this blank stare. `You know, Tricky?’ I responded. He had no idea who I was referring to. I brought up the fact that he started out with Massive Attack in the early ’90s. Nothing, he still had no idea who Tricky was. I continued divulging the CV of one my favorite artists. He released a critically acclaimed debut and Mercury Prize nominated solo album Maxinquaye. Nada, I felt like I was getting nowhere with this guy who claimed to be an intellectual music fan.
I didn’t stop there; I kept going, explaining to him that Tricky was Nearly God, and along with Portishead he was at the forefront of the Trip Hop movement of the early ’90s before succumbing to Pre-Millennium Tension in 1996. In 1998, he co-opted the title of a James Cagney film in the dark Angels with Dirty Faces, which incidentally featured collaboration with one Polly Jean Harvey on “Broken Homes.” In 1999, he went into Juxtapose hip hop mode with Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs.
My co-worker recognized Cypress Hill but still no Tricky. But, as I explained, Tricky still wasn’t breaking through so he recruited some high profile friends including Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante, Cyndi Lauper and Alanis Morrissette to help him Blowback in 2001. Those three he knew but Tricky, not so much. Alas, in 2003 Tricky became Vulnerable to his own creation that included two covers one of XTC’s “Dear God” and The Cure’s “Love Cats.”
This leads us to his new album, Knowle West Boy. And by this moment in our conversation my co-worker was hardly as enthusiastic as I was for the triumphant return of the Tricky Kid. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Which is what many would have thought Tricky would have done with the lack of commercial success after Maxinquaye. But, he never packed it in, Tricky continued rolling up the songs and lighting them for the entire world to taste and savor the glory of his ever lifted creative endeavors.
What I should have told my co-worker is that Tricky’s music is like the soundtrack to those old William Burroughs tripped out films of the 1950s. They’re the sort of movies that show us pieces of ourselves the one’s that we’re all afraid to discover. The emotional lust and the fear of desire along with the desperate stench of hate as we hide everything deep down, drenched in paranoia. This is what Tricky brings to life on each of his albums since Maxinquaye and you wonder why this genius isn’t a household name? For the most part Americans don’t really connect with artists that make them think and ponder about their darkened despair that permeates within their relatively vacant lives.
This is what I respect about the artist formally known as Adrian Thawes. He is a singer/songwriter who challenges his audience to not only open their ears but open themselves out to the mirrors coming from his reflecting songs. Add to the mix that he sounds rather devilish, which is the reason that Tricky has recruited a number of famous sirens to contrast his darkest side. First there was Martina Topley-Bird who, herself, went on to her own quasi successful solo career. Then there was the already successful Allison Goldfrapp, Björk and the aforementioned PJ Harvey. Recently, Tricky has come to recruit unsigned talent on his albums—most recently he’s discovered Alex Mills, Veronika and his former flame Lubna to sing on Knowle West Boy.
What makes Knowle West Boy his best album since his debut is the maturity in the sound. Tricky has a bit of help from former Suede guitarist and now producer Bernard Butler, who has helped sculpt Tricky’s most diverse and eclectic album of his rather infamous career. “Puppy Toy” begins with a stripped arrangement of piano keys, some strings and a seductive back beat. It then explodes into a gigantic Butler-esque guitar riff before going back into the dynamic duet between two would be lovers, brought to life by Alex Mills and Tricky looking for a connection at a bar.
The album turns into a raga rap beat on “Bacative,” starring Rodigan from New York. There’s a mysterious female singer that Tricky and Butler slipped in beautifully between Rodigan’s killer raps. What I love about “Bavative” and Knowle West Boy as a whole is that Butler has reeled in Tricky to create his most strict traditional song structures that he has ever attempted on record.
Listen to “Joseph”—the Tricky of old would have drowned the vocals of this unknown busker with atmospheric tripped out effects but for the most part Butler keeps each track at around the three-minute territory. The lone exception is the very climatic “Past Mistake.” Butler helps Tricky turns these star crossed romantics featuring the vocals of Lubna on a doomed love affair that is distant and damaged from the start. Although, “Past Mistake” sounds like the anti-“Teardrop,” “Past Mistake” would have fit perfectly on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.
There’s no reason to worry that Tricky has gone Pop Idol on us as you’ll discover on electric “Veronika” and the highly charged insurgent sound of “Collation.” I prefer the stripped vibe of the very sensual “Cross to Bear.” This is a new side to Tricky that features very sultry vocals of “Hafdis Huld.” I love the way Tricky and Bernard mix the strings with Tricky’s trademark tripped out beats.
One of the few missteps has to be Tricky’s ill-advised cover Kylie Minogue’s “Slow.” This could have turned into a “Lovecats” surprise like cover that I so adored on Vulnerable but Knowle West Boy would have better off sans “Slow.” It just sounds out of place in this very incredible but imperfect album.
Knowle West Boy closes with the acoustic beauty, “School Gates.” It’s Tricky’s street-like version of “In My Life.” Tricky sounds like someone who’s comfortable in his own dark persona that created Maxinquaye but unafraid of reminiscing at those tender moments that inspired him to craft the Knowle West Boy that he is today.
With Portishead and Tricky releasing new endeavors and Massive Attack’s new album on the horizon, this could well be the year of the resurrection of trip-hop. I know that I’ll be putting Knowle West Boy on my top albums of 2008. Here’s hoping that Tricky breaks through from the unacknowledged underground that has made him an unfortunate alias in the island of influentially underappreciated artists. Most of all, Tricky is the devil that we recognize reflecting the lies that we live in this age of post-modern impurity.
Nearly God – Nearly God
Björk – Volta
Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain