A Great Pop Album Nobody Liked: Tricky’s ‘Blowback’


Blowback is widely considered by Tricky fans as a true low point in his wild discography. I know this because I’m a Tricky fan, and have been since he was with Massive Attack (didn’t give a shit about that Wild Bunch act though). For it to be considered his worst effort is a particularly significant criticism levelled at the Tricky kid, since his last couple of records were, for the most part, ineffectual garbage.

I never liked Blowback. I bought it the first day it came out, I listened to it that day, and then slowly started generating militant disdain for it. Motherfucking fluff, the whole lot of it, I reckoned. And I was right: it is a fluffy, breezy album. Sort of (we’ll get to that more later). But one must consider the source here. Through his first four offerings (yes, I’m counting the brilliant 1996 collab effort Nearly God), Tricky’s best moments stimulated an urgent and imaginative eclecticism that spread the values of rock ‘n’ roll even as it brought them to their knees. At worst, he rationalized the notion of absolutely no cultural mobility, concerned much too intensely with the mutated psyche of being in a real place that is logically seen as hell by all those who inhabit it.

And really, why shouldn’t he? Nobody quite mastered this like Tricky. Critics often called these albums “harrowing” and “claustrophobic”. Those descriptions weren’t quite missing the point, but the music on the above noted releases are some of the purest examples of reducing rock music to its harshest essentials. Tricky’s source of his crankiness: he just can’t get out of his own head, and it’s the head of a dissident minority who for the life of him, cannot ever achieve any sort of cultural hegemony of any kind within himself. Until Blowback, of course.

Again, I admit I didn’t dig on Blowback at all when it was released. Tricky fans were generally Tricky fans ’cause we appreciate music that describes profound/unspeakable feelings of despair, confusion, guilt, longing, brief relief, and blurred clarity. And on a more corporeal level, the ways we take all those feelings and habitually bury them, just as a way to make sense out of getting up in the morning. I mean, I could point out several examples of Tricky literally rejecting fucking language on his last couple albums. Not in a lame, poetic sense either. It’s a legitimate denunciation that is less about alienation than a struggle that Tricky has elevated to proportions most of us could never understand, but are addicted to surrendering to. From that music, to an album that features Cyndi Lauper and that jerk from Live? You’re goddamn right I feel entirely justified having a knee-jerk reaction to Blowback.

But now I have a new opinion of Blowback, and it only took almost a decade to form it. Now I see it as stunningly brilliant. I think it might have been the most overlooked pop album of the last 15 years or so. This is probably as good a time as any to provide a tangible definition of “pop music”. Horrible connotations are generally associated with that term, and believe me, I get it. I’m in the dwindling majority of rock writers who generally hate standard radio acts. Used to be cool to say shit like that, now I get called out when I make a flippant remark about Taylor Swift. Not sure when this happened, but there’s a good chance us closed-minded idiot rock journalists are a dying breed. Oh well, we had a good run.

But back to the topic at hand — “pop music”. To me, pop music isn’t anything that is popular music, as the term implies. Units moved, YouTube views — these things mean very little to me when discussing the topic. To me, pop music is anything that is created by the artist with the goal to be popular. So by that logic, Carrie Underwood is pop, but not because she’s on the radio every day in every Western culture. It’s because she makes her music with the sole goal of being popular with a shit-ton of people. With that in mind, Blowback is indisputably a pop release; Tricky publicly went on the record to say he wanted radio play with this effort. Certainly wasn’t the case with anything he put out before this, but Blowback was almost a reboot of his career, as it was so radically different from those other albums.

Pitchfork was probably right. Blowback is rooted in a terrible idea; history has proven this, as he lost fans in droves, fans he never really got back since then. From that perspective making an album to be played on the radio is a terrible idea. But they also missed a huge point. Pop music, blockbuster movies, CIA espionage books, they all have one thing in common: they are created for people to escape the drudgery of their daily lives. Most are mired with ill-advised “artistic ventures” that never allow these albums to survive on a sustainable level, and nearly all involve a dizzying array of dumbed-down elements firmly aimed at all our worst, most embarrassing impulses.

But sometimes these efforts are so unpolluted, so firmly entrenched in escapist gospel, they transcend any standard definition we’d typically associate with something that a whole lot of people have no problem wholeheartedly embracing, and in those rare cases, it’s just as artistic as anything the Velvet Underground put out, for example.

I suppose I don’t have the effort (or conviction) to argue that Blowback could be considered the equal of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. It’s not. But you can’t really compare these two albums, since they almost literally exist in and represent totally different worlds. Blowback is an active and willful rejection of the corrupt world, but the key thing here is, the rejection is rooted in concrete reality. Basically all pop efforts avoid this, under some patronizing impression that nobody can handle optimistic messages if they are in the mere presence of unpleasantness, even if the optimism clearly triumphs, as it does here. Musically, this isn’t gentle and reflective music created to simulate some grand utopia. It’s proactive and rooted in a simple spiritual paradox: to experience grace is to be conscious of it; to be conscious of it, is to lose it.

Like all of his albums, Blowback could really only have been made by Tricky. This is the sound of someone crawling out from the debris, near suffocation brought on by years of the burden of self-seriousness. No longer do his sufferings fill the universe; new innocence means he can now play, and we’re all invited.

Blowback is a pop album for the ages because like any great pop effort, it is based in the pleasure principle, but here Tricky takes it completely seriously (of course, given the source). We don’t really get a lot of hedonism cop-outs, nor manufactured outrage, but a self-sufficiency we have not seen even marginal glimpses of in anything he’s done in the past. Pleasure is promised, but so is accountability. The unsaid melancholy of our existence in this consumer collective is a humming present, but we’re allowed to see it practically, filtered through a defiance of material squalor. Tricky finds happiness not between the cracks of capitalism as so many of his contemporaries lamely seek to do, but is finally acutely aware of the system, and is strengthened by this newfound ability to succeed within these now visible parameters. In other words, counter-culture has no tangible potential, and Tricky knows this. But social detachment is only slightly better, and that was the motor of his seminal previous efforts.

Blowback has him finding happiness sprouting from the roots of despair and confusion, really the only kind of happiness that matters these days. At first listen, chances are Blowback will throw you off, but it’s not him, it’s you. We’re trained to think pop music is Prosaic in nature, but if we’re not into that neutered escapism, then what? Listen to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” a million times until we can form a reality we feel is adequately detached from any product designed to reach a great number of people?

Total nonsense. There’s a huge grey area we haven’t even begun to explore. No reason to think we can’t carve some serious, legitimate shards out of the human condition, and apply them to some outwardly joyous artistic expression. Do we live in such a horrible, jaded world that a realistic expression of happiness is completely out of the question? Possibly, but dealing in absolutes is usually a pretty easy way to paint yourself into a corner in swift order, something we’re all doing more, and more. Blowback does allow us to escape the doldrums of our existence, but it insists we do so with our feet firmly grounded and our eyes translucent. It might be the first pop album that acknowledges fluffy clouds and scorched Earth in equal measure, and still effortlessly encourages bliss on a multitude of levels.

Pop music can be great. We just have to allow it to try. Blowback is the sacred and the profane — and it’ll make you smile.