Alas, poor Tricky, I knew him well, a fellow of infinite psychosis…
So read the numerous career obituaries written for Tricky during this last, disastrous decade of his career. How can someone who started off as one of the most essential, ground-breaking artists of the 1990s have stumbled so badly in the new millennium? Not without reason, I suppose, did he title his 1996 sophomore record Pre-Millenium Tension: I’d be pretty tense too if I’d had the kind of decade Tricky’s had.
It’s been pretty grim. Most people, I suspect, had written Tricky off altogether after the one-two punch of Blowback and Vulnerable. Attempts at pop-crossover from fringe artists are always a dicey proposition, even more so when your primary skill set consists of rasping menacingly over hypnotically, apocalyptically dark beats. Rapping with Alanis Morissette and the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Covering “Dear God” and “The Lovecats”? Better for Portishead that they could simply drop out of music altogether for 11 years — Tricky probably wishes he could call a do-over on everything since 2000’s Mission Accomplished EP.
So, is Knowle West Boy any good? The short answer: yes. This is the living definition of a “return to form”. If you liked Tricky in 1998, you will like how Tricky sounds in 2008. That is not to say that this is an album entirely stuck in time. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, and although there are significant concessions made to more contemporary sounds, they all come out sounding pretty much like you’d expect Tricky to sound like — that is, dark, dank and depressing. (But only in the best way.)
Tricky’s gone to his roots in more ways than one. He grew up in the Knowle West area of Bristol, poor and parentless — his mother committed suicide when he was four, and he never knew his father. Knowle West Boy is the sound of Tricky reengaging with the sound of hardscrabble, grasping poverty, and as such it makes more than a passing reference to fellow working-class superstars like the Streets and, surprisingly, the Arctic Monkeys. (You can hear the latter on the first single, the uncharacteristically uptempo “Council Estate”.) In the years since Maxinquaye British hip-hop has come into its own, and while it would be pressing matters to say that Tricky seems particularly interested in grime, it can also be said with some justification that Tricky had as much to do with creating the inspiration for grime as anyone else. He’s in its DNA, so if you hear any Dizzee Rascal on this disc, that’s why. Better to say that there’s not a British MC alive today with the possible exception of Roots Manuva who doesn’t owe a debt to Tricky.
The album starts with an odd, almost goofy blues track, “Puppy Toy”, that seems to foreshadow an entirely different album than what actually arrives, with Tricky spitting the kind of witty come-ons you might expect from a Streets CD. The rock influence continues on “Bacative” and “C’Mon Baby”, perhaps not the most sonically original compositions on display, but they add some necessary energy nonetheless. The aforementioned “Council Estate” is fierce and propulsive, every bit a punk track, with a dab of Aphex Twin spread atop the track like Vaseline on the camera lens.
I should probably mention the Kylie Minogue cover, so you’re not surprised like I was. Tricky covers Minogue’s “Slow”, and that’s every bit as bizarre as you might expect. Not bad, however — if you actually remember the lyrics, it had a lot of sleaze to begin with. It works. The rest of the album is split pretty evenly between a more uptempo rock sound and more traditional, reggae-tinged trip-hop numbers like “Baligaga” and “Cross to Bear”, which are remarkable for nothing so much as the fact that I never believed I’d hear Tricky sounding as comfortable, as compelling as this again.
It’s a sensation not unlike what I had earlier this year after the release of R.E.M.’s Accelerate. You heard the hype, you knew it was supposed to be a triumphant return from near-oblivion, but you’d heard that too many times before not to be wary. There’s nothing worse than getting your hopes up, only to have them dashed by cruel reality. But, as with Accelerate, I am pleased to say that Knowle West Boy is every bit the album you’re hoping and praying it is. Perhaps it’s not a full home run — it’s good, but more a retrenchment than a bold step forward. That’s OK, however. After the kind of decade he’s had, it’s just good to see Tricky on his feet again.