“This is… the most uptempo album I’ve done. I wanted something that could be played in a club… maybe! Which is unusual for me. Because I don’t give a shit about clubs.”
—Tricky, on Mixed Race
This is part of the problem with Tricky, isn’t it? He writes club music, but he doesn’t know why, because he couldn’t care less. He entered the public consciousness via his association with Massive Attack, and now he wouldn’t be caught dead in a room with those guys. He manages the first hints of critical acclaim he’s seen in some time by opening up a tiny window into his world on Knowle West Boy, and then he shuts that window as quickly as he opened it with follow-up Mixed Race.
On one hand, the argument can be made that the music on the album is one long metaphor, that the too-quick snippets that pass for songs suggest a man for whom “where are you from” is an overloaded question with a complicated answer. Such a metaphor is suggested by the title, and perhaps that’s what he was going for. But if he doesn’t “give a shit about clubs”, why include club-oriented music? How are we supposed to approach anything else that he says or creates without questioning the authenticity of its source? Perhaps this sort of arms-length posturing is to be expected from an artist that still spends much of any given performance with his back to the crowd, but between the often overt autobiographical tendencies of Knowle West Boy and the intent of an album title like Mixed Race, the temptation is to look at this as a new era for Tricky. This is where he starts showing his cards every so often.
Alas, it’s not to be. Mixed Race is less an album than it is a collection of ideas, a slight potpourri of styles that’s over nearly as soon as it begins.
What makes this so distressing is that some of the ideas on display here are just fantastic, and utterly outside the realm of what Tricky has done in the past. “Time to Dance”, one of the aforementioned examples of his “club music” dabblings, could just about be a Kylie Minogue track, and I mean that in the best way possible. Open, airy, and as danceable as its title would imply, vocalist Frankey Riley (Tricky’s female foil of the moment) coos and whispers three words at a time, crawling through the song as the beats and synths rain around her. But then it’s over! It’s two minutes and 24 seconds of dance bliss, but if he was going to go the disco route, couldn’t he at least have committed to it and let it go on for, oh, six minutes or so? Would it have been so bad to let it swirl around in our heads for a while?
Similarly, closer “Bristol to London” is another track that runs under two-and-a-half minutes, in which Tricky takes a cue from the Ninja Tune sound and lets a sequencer do most of the production’s heavy lifting. Emcees Blackman and Marlon Thaws—the latter of which is Tricky’s brother—just kill the vocals, but they get a verse each and then cut. Album’s over. Come again soon.
Neither of these come even close, however, to the missed opportunity of “Hakim”, a brilliant-sounding little song that could have had an interesting subtext given the discomfort that so much of Europe and America has with anything that could have come from the middle east. “Hakim”, however, is merely named after the vocalist and guitarist on the track. What’s it about, then? I’ll let Tricky himself answer:
...Hakim just did this one while he was hanging around waiting for something to happen. I was only recording it to check the levels on his guitar! I listened to it after our day in the studio and I was like, “Fuck!” I haven’t got a clue what he’s on about. But he told me that it was about how that mad homeless guy on the street we all meet actually knows more than we do.
What does Tricky allow himself more than three minutes to explore? Only the places he’s already been. There’s “Early Bird”, a jazzy distant cousin to “Christiansands” that features Tricky and Riley simultaneously offering some vaguely ironic gangster-style bravado. “Ghetto Stars” is an admittedly effective stab at drama that prominently features a swirling minor-key violin part and some chugging, menacing electric guitars, very much in the vein of Blowback‘s underrated deep cut “Bury the Evidence”. The longest track, the almost four-minute “Come to Me”, is also the album’s weakest—a swing-jazz bit of fluff with a hint of reggae in the syncopated organ part that holds it together.
There’s enough innovation throughout Mixed Race that it’s hard to believe Tricky needed fluff to fill it out at all, but without “Come to Me”, he clearly couldn’t have charged more than the price of an EP for this thing.
For what it’s worth, Mixed Race is the most immediately appealing album Tricky has released in… well, maybe ever. Every track has an easily-identifiable and easy-to-follow beat, and there is not a single noise experiment muddying up the tracklist. Tricky’s less hostile in his lyrics than he’s ever been, and he lets his guests do most of the heavy lifting on the vocals. It’s a Tricky album for beginners, a quick rundown of styles and themes that sheds some light on where he’s been and the potential he has. Unfortunately, immediate appeal is just about the only thing it’s got going for it. There is no depth here, no exploration, no layers to peel back. To eschew the difficulty of his previous albums is to lose an awful lot of what makes him such an intriguing study.
Despite unwittingly creating an album whose skin-deep sheen happens to be a metaphor for his career-long relationship with his audience, Tricky is offering us little more than an appetizer.