stardom haven't spoiled him. Tricky is the same paranoid android, still
waiting for hell around each corner. But now he's back with a new album,
more intense and invasive than ever before. And this time, things are truly
Story by Tony Marcus
|The Tricky kid is back.
A new album, 'Angels With Dirty Faces' re-opens his lisping, whispering,
hushed, hissed and broken world. And he's now based in New York - the geographical
distance between this city and his native Bristol parallelling the growing
artistic gulf between the artist and his West Country familiars Massive
Attack. Because, where the latter are all style (if not the most
stylish band of their time), Tricky's the opposite - he's the content kid.
But, as his name suggests, he's also the trickster, the joker (and, by
extension perhaps the devil), burnt words pouring out of his mouth in a
cloud of think and mind-wrecking hydroponic smoke.
"Hell is round the corner where I shelter". What a line. It's typical Tricky - bear it once and it stays inside your head forever. But what kind of hell? Perhaps it's the England in pain that turns up in the statistics: colossal divisions between rich and poor with corresponding health and life-expectancy differentials, rising homelessness, mental disease, crime and brute stress? Scotland Yard reckon that the growth of the drugs
|business over the last
decade is paralleled only by the computer industry. In London, the
richest 20 percent of homes own more than 60 percent of the city's wealth.
Up to two thirds of people in Liverpool are existing on or below the margins
of poverty. As many as 24,000 people in urban Britian are reckoned to die
early from pollution each year. Too much to take? Well though, only Tehran
and Bangalore boast fewer psychiatrists per 1000,000 people tha London
. And no-one's bothered to do the figures for the rest of the country.
Maybe Tricky sells so many records - half a million of just his debut Maxinquaye - because he's the true poet of this cracked headspace. For get about his words for a second and just listen to his tunes, his backing tracks. He begins, like Massive Attack, with whom he initially worked, with a cool and polished sound on the single Aftermath. But since then, his music has seemed ever closer to disintegration, often sounding deliberately clumsy. His beat and ambient loops often clash
|with rather than complement
each other, while his rhythms might abandon a tokers head-nodding refuge
to jerk and spasm towards Brecht or their own lurching dramas. And he likes
his junk, radio-hostile sounds - that respirator playing dead-man's funk
on Vent, hissy eamples, ugly loops or unexpectedly vicious jumps
in volume or frequency that make you think your stereo's crashing.
You probably know his words already. If there is a competition between Tricky and Massive (when he left the band, so the story goes, they told him that he'd be nothing without them), then the Tricky kid wins the lyrical round: "Hell is round the corner... And everybody wants to be naked and famous... She hides my Ventolin, can't hardly breathe... Brand new you're retro... You know it's ironic smoking hydroponic... I fuck you in the ass, just for a laugh. With the quickspeed I'll make your nose bleed." And those are just the highlights - the first few phrases to have settled into people's conversation, research, rest and drug-dazings. Beyond these
Tricky (and presumably Martina) are drawing an acid word-world where their
relationship is stripped raw and Tricky tells you how close he is to an
edge defined by psychosis, rock (the smokeable version), asthma, halucinagenics
(Tricky's pronounciation), scars, voodoo and concrete. Sometimes it almost
seems too personal, like Tricky's giving himself away - he could put his
tracks up in a gallery with the tag 'self analysis with microphone'.
"For all those who want to analyze me," he whispers (Tricky loves to whisper, he's intimate, pillow-soft and such a dreadful flirt) on Analyze Me from his new LP, "My Mother committed suicide when I was four or five." That's harsh Tricky. That's high impact lyrical damage. But Tricky - or Adrian Thaws to give him his real name - loves to play these games with you. He gets off on teasing you with glimpses of what's going on inside his head. And this goes right back to his first appearance on Massive Attack's Blue Lines: "Beautiful thoughts means I dream too much. Even if I told you, you still would not know me. Tricky never does, Adrian also gets lonely."
|He was intense, internal
and personal from the off. And if you want to keep playing, well this game
has no end. There's all that stuff on Aftermath about his mother
and that 'poor boy' Martina sings softly to, almost lullaby-style. Or when
he plays live, Tricky
does it in the dark, so it's like you're inside his head watching thoughts fly between the speakers. And there's this rumour that Tricky was really conducting a seance during those lights-out gigs to contact his mother, Maxine Quaye. And what about that sample in Aftermath - 'Let me tell you about my mother' - from Leon the Replicant in Blade Runner. You know Leon, an android, a fake human with no parents and no love but false memories... like that's so paranoid...
And that's the world Tricky creates for his public. And people swim deeply here, poring over lyrics, videos and artwork in search of clues, meaning, analysis. Tricky is such a voracious myth-maker that he creates infinite space for such speculation. He's greedy for the energy of identity: dressing up as the devil for one magazine and doing Jesus for the next. He's talked about his gangster days, transvestite days (Tricky digs full slap and frock) and he
|likes to spin spin the
web of pop-sugar around that whole God, Jesus and Devil thing. Or check
his collaborators - PJ Harvey, Terry Hall, RZA, Alison Moyet, Björk,
Grace Jones and Marilyn Manson (the latter somewhere between rumour and
unfinished), all similarly adding new levels to the game.
It helps that he recycles himself: the same or similar lyrical, bass and melodic ruffs weaving in and out of different tracks. You can stick them all together and make Tricky-world, then go hunting for the real Adrian. In fact, that's the very game he asked you to play in Hell Is Round The Corner. At the beginning, there's that Isaac Hayes sample, a haunting descending riff that sucks you in like quicksand. Portishead used it on Glory Box to coax you towards their most charged point of sexual crisis. But Tricky famously uses the sample to haul you down the 'corridors of my life' and towards... well, what lies at the end of the passage?
Most of the time he moves too quickly for anyone to find out. He's almost hyperactive, recording something over 60 tracks since 1994, signed to Island as a solo artist, A&Ring his own Durban Poison label, pencilled in for a spoken-word
|project with Bristol
gangsters, acting in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and always moving.
Lyrically, new album Angels With Dirty Faces opens up fresh territory
with a rock star's loathing of his industry. Just chase some of its lyrics
from song to song:
"I wanna blow my head off in Seattle... trample on my soul... money greedy... In this industry full of vomit, my voodoo make 'em sick. Is this making music or making money. I can't make my mind up."
Sonically too, there are new dimensions to his music - two of the best tracks are rock (Carriage For Two and Money Greedy),but a kind of hazed-out rock, like the hex-routines that Patti Smith used to improvise over or the fractured textures of Tortoise. Once again it's a broken-down music: there's no pop here, no warm or familiar chord progressions, no big beats or even choruses. And it's still hip hop as far as Tricky's interested in rap as a means of delivering streams of consciousness - the sound of a mind turning in, on and around itself. Maybe that's why there have been so many Tricky-tracks, each one another set of thoughts from a brain that can't stop spinning.
Of course this flow of words, language spilling from his cortex, can also be read as his famous skunkanoia (a marijuana-fuelled stream of paranoid rant). Tricky seems unbelievably industrious (yet more projects include the hip hop band Drunkenstein) but interview after interview portrays him as a freaky non-stop spliff-sucker, a paranoid over-stoner. If he is paranoid it must drive him to
|over-compensate and over-work
- stave off the panic with all-out action, so maybe he's something new,
a paranaut or para-ninja. "People say I'm prolific," he's said. "I don't
think I'm prolific. It's just that I can't concentrate on anything for
But again, what's at the end of all these corridors? Why is there such a recognisable signature and brilliant consistency to all of his work? Where is it that Tricky keeps going? "I'm just," he told one interviewer, "I just want to make you feel the music. It's like, I want to touch souls." But does he do it by taking them down to devil worlds? When Martina and Tricky sing "Hell is round the corner where I shelter", it's almost like they're telling you hell is the place where they feel safe and comfortable. And every soft twist of that Isaac Hayes sample reinforces the idea. And maybe it's because Tricky feels safe down there, doing a one-on-one with the worst. "My microphone weighs tons, I must be dead... would you like to drink from my vein... now I'm the livin' prostitute... red zones in my head phones, the devil's tools... Love shall leave me alone."
If the modern urban world can, for some, be little more than a world of pain, then hell is the right metaphor and a kind of survival tactic - embrace the worst and you won't be disappointed. But this is an intensely masochistic reflex and you join a cult of delicious pain every time you fall in love with Tricky's opium-thick voice, running just above silence, just a few decibels from extinction. If the latest greatest pop superstar
|(the lineage and style
begins with Jesus) is a supermasochist, what does that tell you about the
world that bought his records?
"Since my music is extreme," he says, "my life is supposed to be extreme. I'm actually very very very normal. Cheese sandwich normal." Oh Mama Weer All Crazee Now, as Noddy Holder once howled. Is that what we can draw from Tricky? In interviews, journalists are keen to point out how dark or different he is. They'll tell you he's the freak, the exception and they'll locate his fucked/violent world within a biography that includes exposure to non nuclear families, suicide, petty crime, casual violence and drug-taking. But is that really so far-out or abnormal? What if he's not so distant but so very very close? Isn't that just the nightmare tide that New Labour are fighting, the crimson gush that's cruel rather than cool Britannia?
These are the red zones in his headphones, like Radiohead perhaps, a music that dares to move away from pleasure. But unlike Thom Yorke or The Verve's Richard Ashcroft, there'a no self-pity here. Where these two arch-rulers of the downbeat headstate whine and whinge, Tricky and Martina seem hard, almost invulnerable. His brain thinks bomb-like after all, and most of the time the voices are flat, cold and zombie-dead. But if life is hell then suicide or at least the virtual-suicide of death-art is the way out or in: so Tricky and Martina sound like damned spirits and go on and on forever.
Angels With Dirty Faces is out on May 25 on lsland.
photos: Barron Claibourne
|Tricky solo discography|