I still think of Blowback as a legitimate stunner, one of the most underrated and wonderfully unique pop albums ever made. But there’s no denying what happened to Tricky after that release. Surprisingly enough, my praise for Blowback couldn’t save it from a catastrophic demise. Not only did it fail to achieve Tricky’s singular goal with the effort — to get radio play and move units — but as far as I could tell, nearly all his fans washed their hands of him. It got to the point where adorers of Maxinquaye actually were embarrassed by Blowback. After that it really didn’t matter what he did. I won’t get into a breakdown of his efforts beyond that career catastrophe, other than saying they were all interesting only in the sense that they all tried so very hard to make Tricky seem cool again, and all of them surprisingly just sounded incredibly mediocre and blasé. That gave all of them sort of a perverse distinction, I suppose, but at some point I just started assuming he ran out of ideas. After hearing him cover The Cure’s “Lovecats” with a straight face, I really wasn’t left with much room to be optimistic.
Now I see those albums as a purge. Perhaps the only way for him to be cool again was to lose all his coolness and then stumble back into it randomly. That’s what False Idols represents. Tricky is a hip cat again, and in his world that’s a commodity he can scarcely afford to lose. The great thing here, though, is he did it the old fashioned way: he just put out a great fucking record.
False Idols is a massive triumph musically. There is no filler, in many places it sounds timeless, and by that I mean it would fit just as well in the “trip-hop glory years” (if there ever was such a thing) as it does in today’s glitched out, warped excuse for an industry collective. I feel like I’m in a position to accurately identify Tricky’s strengths (we’ll get to that in a minute) and his weaknesses (lots to be found for sure the last decade, but they are all but gone with False Idols). Let’s give a quick framework.
Tricky’s best material thrives when it combines several, or ideally all, of the following elements:
1) Space is a big one in Tricky’s music. When he forgets this, it generally is a disaster. But when he sits back and figures out when to allow a song to breathe, and when to stuff his acute paranoia down its throat, that’s when we get some of his true classics. Maxinquaye doesn’t split these up, as he seamlessly blended both of these into nearly every track. Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels tended to divvy em up. Really, though, how do you define an artist who put “Vent” and “Piano” on the same album? False Idols has mostly relaxed back into the Maxinquaye mold, which should greatly please his long-time fans. There isn’t that alienating dichotomy found on everything since his debut. No longer do we change the song and wonder which Tricky is going to show. Standout “Paranthesis” gives the Antlers tune “Parantheses” a new look and actually features their frontman Peter Silberman. Tricky allows the sincere doom to dictate the track, and then has no qualms breaking it all apart with a thundering guitar hook. There might not be a better example of his spatial awareness than the opener “Somebody’s Sins”. Named after what you are probably assuming it’s named after, vocalist Fransesca Belmonte is a perfect muse to patiently deliver all of Tricky’s neuroses without sacrificing her own interpretation of his anxiety and general weirdness.
2) The outright strangling of some pretty basic elements of the human condition. By that I mean, Tricky’s real calling card is taking core fears — anxiety, fear of unknown, discomfort with one’s self, inability to fit in on any discernible level… fears that have been tackled a million times by a million less talented musicians. But he snakes around them on a level that borders on perverse, mutant. This sort of stopped happening when he was on a quest to regain his cool name, but on False Idols we see it time and time again. Witness album closer “The Passion of the Christ”, which stands alongside his best work on any album. It’s so raw, if you close your eyes it actually feels at times as though Tricky is in the room with you. I was reminded of his “Wash My Soul” offering found on his collaboration with DJ Muggs Juxtapose, although this one was slightly more orchestral and yes, even ethereal.
3) Beautiful dissonance. At his previous best, he’s created some pretty harsh effects, but it never felt grating. This is because the Tricky we all came to know and oddly love had the unique gift of ensuring no matter how brutally abrasive the music gets, the emotional element always stays just a slight step ahead. This is the one area we don’t see much of on False Idols. It’s a dark and moody effort that has its share of unpleasantness, but it’s probably safe to say the part of Tricky that effortlessly released stomach-churning efforts like “Bubbles” or “Record Companies” has been replaced by a songwriter less willing to surrender to chaos. I thought I would miss this, but as False Idols rolls along we quickly realize that a vintage Tricky sonic grindfest would feel woefully out of place here.
What we’re left with, though, is a songwriter hitting the peak of his craft, and while it doesn’t surpass any of his holy triptych first three offerings (I guess I could include the brilliant Nearly God collaboration album in there, too — he was on a run in the mid-late nineties), we have finally got what we deserved and have come full circle. Yes, the teeth-gnashing is mostly gone, but Tricky seems to just be channeling his perpetual frustration into a better working aesthetic that results in songs that thrive on many more levels than those fits of anarchy we were all so fond of.
I always thought Tricky’s best material was awesome because it was a living representation of something fighting against itself — a desperate, flailing attempt at survival. False Idols carries the credibility of a survivor, and is looking back honestly at the damage left by his journey. Somewhere along the way he’s become a legitimately good songwriter, and it was pretty great to see him proudly stand behind this as he promoted the terrific first single “Nothing’s Changed”. The chorus finds Tricky muttering “Nothing’s changed / I still feel the same / Feel same pain” along with Belmonte urging him along. It’s tempting to discard such an unlikely personal statement, but once False Idols opens up and lets you in, you’ll be a believer. We’re a third through 2013, but I’d be shocked if this record is surpassed by many at year’s end.