Since 1995 when he debuted with the much-praised album Maxinquaye, Tricky has released 11 full-length albums, if you count this, his latest, which he’s given his birth name, Adrian Thaws. Suffice to say that he’s been much more prolific than many of his peers. When you release that many albums, there are going to be some misses. Unfortunately for Tricky, people have constantly compared his new albums to his first two, the above-mentioned Maxinquaye and Pre-Millennium Tension, and the consensus has generally been that those first two records were better than his latter releases. And this is something that I could always understand to some degree. Those albums came out shortly after he left Massive Attack when trip-hop was still being defined. So was the “Bristol sound,” which has inhabited all of his albums. So, those albums were new and exciting in a big way. His experience with Massive Attack had certainly helped, but, otherwise, it was as though he’d single-handedly created an entirely new genre of music. That doesn’t happen very often. Sure, new metal sub-genres appear every other week, but when Tricky released those first two records nobody regarded trip-hop as a sub genre. It had elements of hip-hop and R&B, but it was a creature unto itself. And so people looked at Tricky as though he were some kind of genius and he received awards like album of the year from NME and the like. The trouble with that is that it’s a lot to live up to. Meanwhile, Tricky didn’t necessarily want to spend his entire career doing trip-hop. He was and remains an artist who’s all about constant growth. To that end, I was very surprised when I learned that he was returning to his roots for his new album. He’d done so many albums since those first two records and he never really took the time to look back. This allowed him to flourish creatively, taking himself in many different directions, but it also seemed to make him lose touch with what was so special and unique about him in the first place. And so I was thrilled when I heard that he’d be going back to his roots for this new album. But, here’s the thing: Adrian Thaws isn’t another Maxinquaye. Nor is it another Pre-Millennium Tension. There are trip-hop elements all over it, but many of the songs are frantic, jumpy numbers that are just about as far removed from trip-hop as you can get. Let’s explore some of the tracks…
The album opens with “Sun Down” featuring Tirzah, who’s just one of several special guests who feature on the record. It starts off with a panic-inducing, rapid-fire beat but after fifteen seconds or so, the beat suddenly slows way down. To some small degree, that abrupt change of tempo gives one the feeling one gets when you’re in a car accident and you know the collision is about to happen and it feels like time slows down, forcing you to feel powerless against what’s coming. To a larger degree, it’s like when you’re in the passenger seat of a car and the driver is speeding and suddenly has to slam on the brakes. Stopping suddenly like that never feels good. Of course, Tricky doesn’t stop the song, but it’s one of the many moments on the album where things suddenly change, as though the album were designed to toy with your heart rate. Suffice to say that this tempo change gets your attention. And a few seconds after it does that, you adjust to the slower beat and begin to groove with the song.
Tricky’s sing-speak style of crooning is the first vocal on “Sun Down.” There’s always been something both abrasive and inviting about his voice. He could scare you or he could lull you to sleep. I suppose it depends on the listener, to which end people tend to either love or hate his voice. (I’ve always loved it.) But it isn’t long before Tirzah begins singing, delivering the chorus, her voice a bit haunting yet soothing. “You’re always on my mind / Put you in the back / Put you in the back of my mind,” she sings as though she’s trying to forget about someone, presumably the character that Tricky’s portraying. It’s like a call and response sort of affair and it is one of Tricky’s best tracks in years.
“Lonnie Listen” featuring Mykki Blanco and Francesca Belmonte follows. “Exercise every day and I’m still not fit / My kids are hungry and I ain’t got shit,” sings Belmonte on the chorus with a sort of urgency to her vocals, like she’s a desperate person crying out for help. Only she’s doing it in a subtle manner, which only serves to make you think that she’s about to explode. There’s that tension that Tricky is famous for. And, adding to said tension are Tricky’s vocals, as he whispery sings the chorus along with Belmonte, his voice the devil in the details. “They’ll be taking you for everything you got,” Blanco raps during a verse, referring to record labels.
Belmonte returns on “Something In The Way,” which finds her more or less rapping the first verse, something she isn’t really known for but does surprisingly well. “Your role is over now,” she sings, dismissing a lover who plays games. Tricky chooses not to sing on this one, giving Belmonte the spotlight, though his punchy and potent beats and flourishes of dark bass are attention-grabbing as well. You could probably call this one R&B, but if it’s R&B then it’s dark and somewhat twisted R&B, along the lines of The Weeknd and Dawn Richard,
“We need a revolution,” someone says — nobody is credited on the iTunes release – during a skit called “The Unloved.” It’s only 1:10, but it’s one of the more thought-provoking tracks on the album and the subject matter will be familiar to Tricky fans, as he’s often written about evolution and revolution. He doesn’t delve deep into making political statements, mind you. He just tries, or so it seems to me, to instigate change.
“I take a trip to Gaza, it’s really love I’m after,” Tricky croons on “My Palestine Girl” featuring Blue Daisy. “She’s trapped in Babylon / I tell her that I won’t be long,” he sings later, part of his description of the circumstances his lover is trapped in. It’s a love song, but it sounds provocative, the way Tricky sings it. It especially reminds me of Maxinquaye’s best tracks like “Ponderosa” and “Aftermath.” It also evokes the trippy as can be “Christiansands” from Pre-Millennium Tension. Speaking of tension, this song is very tense with boisterous drums and all sorts of unsettling things looping around and around.
While none of these songs are lacking in originality, one of the most unique tracks is the ballad “Silly Games” featuring Tirzah. It’s like reggae done slowly and it’s one of the tracks that features the most live instruments on the album, the bass guitar and organic percussion especially impressive. “And every time we meet / We play hide and seek,” Tirzah sings. It’s about a lover who does indeed love you but plays games nevertheless. If you’ve ever had a mate who thrived on toying with you, you’ll certainly relate to this intoxicating number.
The longest song on Adrian Thaws is “Sun Down,” which clocks in at 3:42 seconds. It just goes to show you that Tricky is wasting no time here, quickly setting a tone, putting forth a vibe along with an immediate and, often, accessible vocal. It’s a bit unusual for him, as some of his best songs are 6 minutes or longer, but none of these songs feel cut short, nor are they any less creative. On the contrary, this is a wildly imaginative album that will assure you that you were not mistaken when you proclaimed him a genius way back in 1995. I hate to say this, as I really do cherish each and every one of his albums, but this is indeed Tricky’s best release since Pre-Millennium Tension. It is the return to form that it promises to be. Bravo to him, then.