Knowle West Boy

As a young British urban musician, you have two choices. You can play the product of your environment; tie your personality to the streets and the neighbourhoods that spawned you, carry your birthright like a weapon. Or you can take that heritage and break it, vandalise your own history and rebuild yourself in the image of your choosing. Tricky took the second route. His debut album Maxinquaye, released in 1995 as Britpop announced its presence with a cheery hip-hurrah, imagined a mongrel hip-hop that simmered with schizophrenic personalities and polymorphous sexuality, sedated and violent.

Tricky was raised by his grandmother, who compared her grandson to his dead mother and dressed him in women’s clothes, so Tricky employed a girl, Martina Topley Bird, to sing his words – not as foil, but the pair in unison, Tricky a looming shadow. And sometimes, the beats just dropped away, and there was nothing to hear but the sound of weed smoke moving between pursed lips. While sporadically brilliant, Tricky’s subsequent albums, 1996’s fractured Pre-Millennium Tension and 1998’s deeply paranoid Angels With Dirty Faces, followed more distant, anti-commercial paths. He moved to Los Angeles, signed to Epitaph, starred in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. By 2001’s Blowback he was collaborating with Alanis Morisette and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Tricky, like so many orphans and outsiders before him, discovered the American dream. The music – of course – sucked.

Tricky’s first album in five years, Knowle West Boy, arrives amidst whispers of a return to form, perhaps owing to the recent good reception to Third by Tricky’s hometown peers Portishead, and the title – a nod to the run-down Bristol suburb that spawned him. But it’s not how you think. ‘Puppy Toy’ opens with guest vocalist Alex Smith asking “Got any cash?” and blows up into a stodgy blues jam powered by the sort of gospel singing and wailing guitar that suggests Jools Holland couldn’t wait to get it on the show so decided to turn up early.

Tricky is sat at the side, muttering about how he always pays for the drinks. It somehow combines being grotesquely overwrought and extremely lazy, but then Knowle West Boy is full of stuff like this. ‘C’mon Baby’ is a guitar chugger as crap as its title. ‘Slow’ covers Kylie, again with guitar, although it probably won’t spark any recognition. ‘Council Estate’, bizarrely, opens with a quick snatch of Portishead’s ‘Roads’, before turning into a barrelling rap-rocker that couches a shout-out to Bristol youth amidst the sort of John Frusciante axe abuse that’ll ensure they never hear it. Once, Tricky specialised at pulling guitars out of context: his ‘Pumpkin’ took the backbeat from Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Suffer’ and looped it into curdled bliss. Now they just chunder and sweat and grunt, all firepower but no target. Once this man’s music felt so effortless, it slid into you. Now lacks glue, it fails to coalesce. It breaks a sweat before it’s even made your acquaintance.

If you’re willing to pick through Knowle West Boy, though, there are glimmers of what brought us here in the first place. ‘Bacative’ showcases the chanted patois of New York ragga MC Rodigan amidst a dreamlike backdrop of picked strings and marching drums. ‘Cross To Bear’, a delicate folksy number, sees Tricky wraith-like, barely there, behind the crystal trill of Icelandic vocalist Hafdis. But it takes Tricky himself to recapture the thrill of his best work. One of the few tracks here that bear the fingerprints of this record’s co-producer, MIA collaborator Switch, ‘Coalition’ looms out of a crackle of walkie-talkie chatter, a scarred landscape of barbed violins, life support machine bleeps and slamming car door beats. Tricky is tetchy, random, free-associating: “The revolution will be televised/In Iran, on the holy Koran,” he threatens. “Get your happy meal in your happy car/You can make more money, more money/But still here you are…” But it is Tricky’s final words on the track say a lot about his current predicament. “How can I be surrounded by people but still feel lonely?” he wheezes. And the truth, it hurts. You can shatter your history, escape your past, dig into your id and streak a path across the sky. But you can never go home again.

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