Part of the intrigue that swirls behind Tricky‘s gritty solo debut, Maxinquaye and what ultimately let it stand tall other great trip-hop albums of the ’90s (Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Portishead’s Dummy) was the magnetic pull of the mystery principle. You can hear it in small doses during Tricky’s hypnotic contributions to Blue Lines actually. The raspy rapper didn’t unhinge every detail for his solo effort. He let his audience peel pack the nail to find the dirt underneath or in the case of Maxinquaye‘s crimson album cover – the old paint. Possibly pressed in by Massive Attack’s sleek attention to dance tropes his ensuing discography has seen him desperately try to keep himself at arms-length from the trip-hop label he was saddled with in Bristol.
So the sans-mystery train wreck that is Tricky’s current career started to appear as the 1990s closed – about the time he was cast in the seven-train pileup that was The Fifth Element. All of the dirt, grime and undulating crassness and mystery that seemed to be Tricky in the ’90s was washed away by the Tricky of the new millennium. Pre-Millenium Tension indeed. By the time his fans slogged through the musical gauntlet of Angels With Dirty Faces, Juxtapose and Blowback they got the equally petulant and incessantly sunny Vulnerable.
After such devastation it comes with no surprise then that Tricky’s eight album is really an Adrian Thaws release. When you hear the man behind the stage name and all the labels speak about his familial past on the short promotional film below you get a sense that at this point in his life he’s ready to do some soul searching. Some will point out this album will see him trying to reach back to Maxinquaye‘s zenith. Though they wouldn’t be too far off sonically the approach is same ball game.
The Specials-esque punk single ‘Council Estate’ serves as his personal boilerplate through his notorious crime family, “the original Knowle Westers.” The quick-cut pace is paralleled by Tricky’s lines about an Athenian-like birth: “In my mother’s belly and I’m starting to kick. / Nine months in the womb and I’m making her sick / Squeeze through the womb and I land in the room.” That chopped up and ragged approach from the early years is refreshing to hear. Tricky’s charm lies in his ability to fuse divergent styles like reggae, blues, hip hop and rock (et al) onto one album. He certainly does it again for Knowle West Boy but the niggling comes at a bird’s eye view. Knowle lacks cohesion but gains points for being punched-up and scrappy – certainly not two descriptors Tricky deserved in recent years.
Knowle‘s often distracting genre switches (he calls this album his “mixtape or what I would put on my i-Pod”) are thrown out as a blatant identity checks reassuring us that Tricky isn’t drowning quite yet. Knowle West Boy‘s orange life rings floats as follows. The sardonic bar-room blues of ‘Puppy Toy’ starts the album off well. Thaws mixes the bedraggled balladeer tongue of Tom Waits and Howlin’ Wolf’s backdoor charisma. On the aforementioned ‘Council Estate’ he twists over his Specials-worshipping punk fetish. “Veronica” is a pitch-perfect glitch-hop tune that pumps some adrenaline into some of the slower songs that come next.
The slow-burning ‘Past Mistake’ and ‘School Gates’ feature Thaws’ former girlfriend Lubna. They broke up after ‘Past Mistake’ was finished so it adds extra gravity to the tune. ‘School Gates’ is a roots rock acoustic number about Thaw’s first girlfriend getting pregnant at 16. It’s cuts deep into the subject matter with that ghostly backup singer sample that’s reminiscent of a singing saw. ‘Bacative’ is nocturnal reggae song that warbles on the right speaker with some wonderful spacey electronics. The harmonica and violin interplay bring some artiness to the streets.
‘Cross to Bear”s delicate tropical groove and cello beat is influenced by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and it’s one of the best songs on an album that makes a habit out of self-discovery. Tricky had slowly lost his edge and ear for subtlety. Song like ‘Coalition,’ which samples an elevator’s bing certainly helps repair those burned bridges. There are some clunkers of course.
The cover of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’ is sleek and sexy but retracts its claws when it should have gone for the killer guitar riff denouement. ‘Baligaga’ has a sweet reggae-cum-dub bass riff but can’t decide whether it is really a jazz song once the flute and saxophone start dancing. ‘Far Away’ is a pretty straightforward rock song about the environment (of course). It swings a little too close to Bon Jovi territory to be considered good. ‘C’Mon Baby’ is an adequate rave up rocker but the true appeal of Knowle West Boy is the sense of letting go of old habits. It will be a little harder to let go of Maxinquaye‘s unrelenting brilliance though.
Short film about the making of Knowle West Boy: