While Tricky’s latest album title ununiform, complete with its non-traditional punctuation, feels a little like a mission statement — his unwillingness to revisit past glories now well-documented — the story of the album itself won’t be able to escape its nods to the celebrated genesis of Tricky’s confounding solo career.
Maxinquaye is, of course, a genre classic. As one of the albums that defined the very genre of “trip-hop”, it found a mood and stuck with it, offering the sinister haze that alongside Massive Attack came to be known as the Bristol sound. It was the sound of rain-soaked dusk and dust-lunged frustration, the sound of the search for beauty in surroundings that you’re trapped in. Since that seminal work, Tricky has spent piles of time and energy distancing himself from it and insisting that he is so much more than “trip-hop” implies.
ununiform may well be the first time he’s decided to go ahead and acknowledge the artist that he was over 20 years ago, never more so than in “The Only Way”, one of only two tracks here with no guest vocalist (the other being the short and fairly inconsequential “Obia Intro” that leads off the album). “The Only Way” is by all accounts — including Tricky’s — a cousin of Maxinquaye‘s “Hell Is ‘Round the Corner”. It’s Four slow chords, following the progression of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, repeated into oblivion, while Tricky raps over the top about such familiar subjects as pain and loss.
“The Only Way” doesn’t have near the swagger and smoothness of its much-older counterpart, but it’s a fine, affecting track, and Tricky’s willingness to reference it is on its own a signal of a changing approach to his art. Convincing Martina Topley-Bird to come back for album closer “When We Die” may well be another. Topley-Bird was the secret weapon that made those first couple Tricky albums so memorable, the missing ingredient in much of his later work. In what will be no surprise to anyone who’s followed her solo work since, Topley-Bird’s voice has every ounce of the quiet confidence and strength that it did way back then, closing the album on a lush note of nostalgia that puts the songs that precede it in the best possible light.
That Topley-Bird’s presence puts such a spin on ununiform is important, because when Tricky’s not reminiscing about the past, he is as confounding as ever. ununiform was recorded in Berlin and Moscow, and we’ve seen that Tricky likes to bring in some of the local talent when he’s recording. As such, over the course of ununiform we get a brief tour of Eastern European/Western-Asian hip-hop. Kazakh rapper Scriptonite is the most prevalent name here, appearing on three tracks while rapping in both Russian and English to interesting if somewhat forgettable effect. Russian rapper Smoky Mo appears on the brief “Bang Boogie”, which sounds vaguely like a minute-long Russian version of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”. These tracks are fine, but as with Tricky’s previous efforts in giving visibility to unknown guests, his deference to those guests tends to make his own art disappear.
That happens less with his collaborations with women, partially because he can’t keep himself from interjecting into the vocal lines of his female collaborators, and partially because since the departure of Topley-Bird, he’s made something of a point of anonymizing them, frequently switching his guests perhaps out of necessity, perhaps in an effort to keep them from stealing the spotlight the way Topley-Bird always seemed to manage to. That said, the women offer the strongest moments on ununiform. Francesca Belmonte’s strong, almost deadpan delivery is perfect for the restrained rock guitars Tricky brings to “New Stole”, while Mina Rose’s effortless, energetic “Dark Days” delivery offers an energy Tricky hasn’t managed to inject into his music since maybe Knowle West Boy. Maybe the only misstep among these tracks is “Doll”, a listless cover of Hole’s “Doll Parts” that fails more clearly on Tricky’s sparse production than on Avalon Lurks’ Hope Sandoval impression. By building the instrumental around an acoustic guitar, Tricky manages to create something that’s just a little too close to the original — without Courtney Love’s rage bubbling just underneath the surface; its “ache” sounds more like indifference.
Yes, we have another Tricky album that plays like a mixtape, not like a cohesive statement but like a collection of ideas and friends, assembled for the sake of assembling. In and of itself, this is disappointing. While there are few qualitatively poor tracks on ununiform, the sheer breadth of scope and the short length of the tracks keeps many of them from digging in. That said, with a couple of nods to the past, Tricky looks to the future. By accepting his past rather than actively shunning it, it seems more likely that his driving force will be something other than “do something I haven’t done yet.” While it’s a long way from the heights he once reached, ununiform carries more promise than Tricky has shown in some time.