Laying the skeletons to rest
If Tricky had retired in 1996 his reputation would have been assured. At the age of 32 the former Adrian Thaws had co-written and appeared on two of the era-defining albums of the 1990s: Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Protection.
He surpassed both albums — and changed the face of music — with his 1995 top-three solo debut, Maxinquaye, which fused hip-hop, strings and noise to invent the genre that became (to his annoyance) known as trip-hop.
At the time, the words “genius” and Tricky were inseparable. By 1999, however, people were referring to Tricky with the far less complimentary “nutter”.
As his albums became incomprehensible, Tricky seemed set to sabotage his career. He confessed to deliberately making records that would not get on the radio. Following his record company Island’s corporate takeover by Polygram, there were disputes with the company and songs aimed at individual executives.
But all this paled in comparison with his personal life, where Tricky had become a walking volcano. There were numerous reports of extreme behaviour: random violence, disruptions in hotels (this was not a man who appreciated the wrong type of cheese). As Tricky pointed out last year, he didn’t shoot anybody, but it was a close-run thing. At his most tortured, he considered shooting someone in the leg so he would be taken to prison, where he could be “cured”. By then, nobody was even talking about the music anymore.
This backdrop is partly what makes Blowback (Anti Inc/Epitaph) such an astonishing record. A musically radical but highly commercial opus; a return to form; a brilliant album.
Essentially, this is the record Tricky should have made after Maxinquaye — and yet the two collections could hardly be more different. Maxinquaye was dark, filmic, claustrophobic. Blowback is urgent, insistent, fast-moving and in a constant state of flux. Most surprisingly, it’s often deliriously uplifting, even humourous, never more than on You Don’t Wanna’s wonderfully camp disfiguring of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams.
The opening track, Excess (an unlikely, driving funk duet with Alanis Morissette and possibly Tricky’s finest five minutes ever), spells out the new manifesto. It’s an affirmation of belief in humanity, topped with the insistent refrain “Keep living”. With the most singable tunes of his career, Tricky is reconnecting with the world.
According to Tricky himself, he had problems stemming from the sugar/ wheat allergy, candida. Most sufferers merely end up with bad skin, but Tricky experienced much rarer paranoia, mood swings and so on. You have to boggle at a psyche that can withstand confessed “industrial” quantities of weed but is turned around by simply laying off the Hovis.
His single-mindedness and willpower are not to be underestimated. These qualities play out in surprising ways on Blowback, where he collaborates with Cyndi Lauper and Ed Kowalczyk from United States rock journeymen Live — hardly the usual “cool” names.
Such collaborations work because Tricky chooses who is right, not who has the biggest reputation. Notably, the singer who particularly excels is an unknown, Amber Sunshower, who takes on the role played on Maxinquaye by Tricky’s ex-partner Martina, purring on the hypnotic Over Me (with rumbustious New York reggaeman Hawkman) and Your Name, an extraordinary, nursery-rhyme love song.
On Maxinquaye, Tricky promised to take us “through the corridors” of his own life. On Blowback, he’s still touring the skeletons in his broom cupboard. Over a demented guitar riff from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Keidis, Girls tells of a horror birth — “Baby’s breaking waves, got my face in my hands” — and explores Tricky’s difficult childhood.
Aged four, his mother died, possibly committing suicide; his father left soon afterwards. Maxinquaye paid tribute to his mother, Maxine Quaye, but here he seems keen to move on from the wreckage of his upbringing. “I’m not the son of your family affair,” he growls, before delivering the album’s crucial line: “I’m not a firestarter, ‘cos I’m a little smarter.”
Tricky has certainly wised up. Positivity has replaced hate as his primary concern, whether it’s the ragga-Beatles Evolution Revolution Love (“Through love I’m gonna make it right”) or Give It to Them‘s disillusion with an empty lifestyle: “Don’t wanna live in bars / live it large, credit card ... I like to talk more.” Even so, he’s hardly gone soft.
This being unpredictable Tricky, a return to the bad ways can’t be ruled out, and two tracks dip musically (the Bauhaus-like dirge of Something in the Way and the superfluous closing piano doodle A Song for Yukiko). But otherwise, Blowback once again puts Tricky out on his own, with songs that deserve at least as wide an audience as Maxinquaye had.