Where do you start with Tricky? How about one of the most important albums of the ’90s. No, not ‘Maxinquaye’―we’ll get to that later―but ‘Blue Lines’, Massive Attack’s 1991 debut. It’s easy to forget that a young Adrian Thaws appeared on three tracks as Tricky Kid. Listening to the reissue released last year it’s clear that he was an integral part of the record, not a bit player. In itself, it’s an impressive achievement, but it was just the overture, the sound of one of British music’s most prolific talents clearing his pipes.
In 1993, following the release of ‘Blue Lines’, Thaw cut a track called ‘Aftermath’ with a singer he’d discovered called Martina Topley-Bird (he’d actually met her before working on ‘Blue Lines’). However, when he played it to the Massive Attack crew, they said no thanks. Undeterred, Thaw pressed up some white labels, on the back of which he got a deal with Island Records. ‘Aftermath’ became the blueprint for Thaw’s 1994 debut album ‘Maxinquaye’, a zeitgeist-capturing collision of half-whispered raps, Topley-Bird’s golden vox and dusty hip hop beats paired with sharply chosen samples. It’s so perfectly formed it’s easy to forget it was recorded on the fly: Tricky made much of it up as he went along, and many of the vocals were first takes. Even so, the result was a crystal clear vision. To borrow the opening line from Jon Savage’s review of the 2009 reissue, “Time has not dimmed this extraordinary record.”
Tricky was born in the Knowle West area of Bristol in 1968 to a Jamaican father and Ghanaian-English mother, called Maxine Quaye, hence the title of his debut, made all the more poignant by the fact she committed suicide when he was just four. He was brought up by his grandmother. As a teenager, he became involved in the Wild Bunch sound system, which would eventually evolve into Massive Attack.
He was always going to be a star in his own right, however. ‘Maxinquaye’ turned him into one, but it didn’t always sit well with him. In 1996 he released ‘Nearly God’, a kind of unofficial second album that he described with some accuracy, as “a collection of brilliant, incomplete demos”. But it was ‘Pre-Millenium Tension’, released the same year, that was his next big statement, that statement being: “I’m not making another ‘Maxinquaye’. It was a dark and claustrophobic record, a sound befitting the title.
It was also the start of a process that saw him seemingly trying to alienate fans of ‘Maxinquaye’, with ever spikier and more difficult sounds. 1998’s ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, named after the 1938 film of the same name about childhood miscreants―a hint perhaps―took things a step further with a sound as menacing as Tricky’s glowering portrait on the artwork. But if it wasn’t always an easy record to listen to, Tricky’s mercurial creativity was there for all to hear, even if it was smothered in layers of black.
‘Blowback’ followed in 2001, a star-studded record that included guest appearances by Cyndi Lauper and John Frusciante and Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chili Peppers. No new ground was broken, but the sound was more ambitious than before. By the time he released ‘Vulnerable’ in 2003 he was living in Los Angeles, hence the brighter, sunnier mood. It is perhaps the forgotten Tricky album, far better than its reception, either critical or commercial, deserved. But there was an undeniable sense that, although ‘Vulnerable’ was a thoroughly solid proposition, the formula had run its course. Tricky seemed to think so: he didn’t release a new album for five years.
His comeback began with 2008’s ‘Knowle West Boy’, which saw him making good on his own description of himself as a “brown punk”. Hip hop, reggae, punk, hard rock and pop collided on a hard-hitting album that was his finest release since ‘Pre Millennium Tension’. Next came ‘Mixed Race’ in 2010, which dialed down the in-your-face sonics, but retained the power and menace. In retrospect, Thaw is dismissive of these two releases, but while it’s true they aren’t the most consistent records in his catalogue, there are moments of brilliance. Look no further than his cover of Echo Minott’s dancehall classic ‘Murder Weapon’ from ‘Mixed Race’, for example.
Which brings us to the future? Tricky’s new album, ‘False Idols’, is the record he’s refused to make throughout his career, a spiritual follow-up to ‘Maxinquaye’ “My last two albums, I thought they were good, but I realise now they weren’t,” he says. “But this new album I’ll stand behind every track. I don’t care whether people like it. I’m doing what I want to do, which is what I did with my first record. That’s what made me who I was in the beginning. If people don’t like it, it don’t matter to me because I’m back where I was.” And as far as Tricky is concerned, ‘False Idols’ is every bit as good as his debut, perhaps even an improvement. “This new record is better than ‘Maxinequaye’,” he confirms. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
There will be those who argue different, of course. When a record becomes a landmark, as ‘Maxinquaye’ did, it’s almost impossible in some people’s minds to top it. However, what’s beyond question is that Tricky is one of British music’s national treasures, a talent who deserves his full recognition alongside the greats.
And he’s back with a record to claim those rights.