It's hard to know what to make of Tricky. After a series of guest appearances on albums by trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack, the Bristol-based rapper, producer, and musician, accompanied by singer Martine, released the 1995 album Maxinquaye, which garnered near-universal praise and gave the trip-hop genre its defining work.
From the slippery, seductive "Overcome" (a reworking of Massive Attack's "Karmacoma") to the techno-metal cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel," Maxinquaye expanded trip-hop's boundaries, enveloping the listener in a dark, oppressive world of sound and sensation. Paranoid, genre-bending, and ultimately brilliant, Maxinquaye established Tricky as trip-hop's standard-bearer and its first pop star. It even had cool cover art.
And now Tricky's back - sort of. His new album, released under the pseudonym Nearly God (modesty apparently isn't among the man's virtues), feels more like a mostly-successful experiment than a complete album.
Twelve songs done in collaboration with other artists (Neneh Cherry, Björk, Terry Hall, Alison Moyet, Cath Coffey, Dedi Madden, and the returning Martine - who's still Tricky's best collaborator), Nearly God delves even further into the drugged-out paranoia of Maxinquaye, equating love with suffocation and sex with death. "If I make a change for you/Who's going to make a change for me?" asks Alison Moyet on "Make a Change." In Tricky's world no one can be trusted, and vulnerability opens you up to nothing but pain.
In some ways, Tricky's working the same territory already covered by Prince. Both artists are iconoclasts, perfectionists, and visionaries, and both see sex as all-encompassing and all-consuming. But while Prince's best material fuses rock, funk, and pop, and equates sex with nirvana, Tricky's stylized trip-hop - a mix of reggae, dub, soul melodies, hip-hop beats and techno instrumentation - is darker and more unnerving, and his view of sex less enthusiastic.
On Nearly God's best track, a cover of the blues standard "Black Coffee," Tricky lifts the ultra-ominous piano-and-drum-machine intro from Elvis Costello's "Pills and Soap"; Martine sings from the point of view of a woman "drowning her regrets/In coffee and cigarettes." It's creepy but also powerful, and gets the song's meaning and sensibility across while radically altering its traditional form.
Other tracks - "Make a Change," about falling in love while keeping your defenses up; "Keep Your Mouth Shut," a duet with Björk in which the line "just keep your mouth shut, baby" becomes a combination of mantra and threat; and the album opener "Tattoo," a pulsing, slow-burn of a song - accomplish the same effect, lulling the listener into an acceptance of the entropy Tricky sees as inherent in love.
The biggest problem, then, with Nearly God isn't that it's too dark, but that it's too muddy. Listen to "Overcome" or "Ponderosa" from Maxinquaye and just try and get them out of your head. On Nearly God, however, the only really catchy bits are the sample from "Black Coffee" (which is already taken from a catchier song), and the intro to "Keep Your Mouth Shut," which cuts between what sounds like an electronic earthquake and sample from Das EFX.
When it works, Nearly God works brilliantly, sucking the listener in and refusing to let go; the problem is that it's hard to get sucked into something that doesn't give you any point of entry. "Bubbles," probably the album's weakest song, kicks off with a "Come Together"-derived bass line, but doesn't really go anywhere. And while "Tattoo" doesn't either, "Bubbles," with the maybe-they're-socially-conscious-but-maybe-not lyrics "The first hundred years are the toughest/On this bubble," isn't interesting enough to make you want to hear more.
Tricky's record company has stressed that Nearly God is not the second Tricky album (which is already recorded and planned for release later this year) - but it's hardly a throw-away side project either. One of the few originals in modern pop music, Tricky is always worth listening to, and if Nearly God falls short of Maxinquaye, it has more to do with the near-perfection of the latter than the shortcomings of the former. Nearly God is difficult and at times uncomfortable, but it's also rewarding and engrossing. Listening to Nearly God isn't a chore - you just have to be willing to listen a little harder to get to the good parts.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 2; September 13, 1996
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