I take a small step, now it's a giant stride
- Tricky on Massive Attack's `Five Man Army'
Bristol 1993. Christian was buying a kookie-looking rap import in Tony's, which used to sell second-hand LPs and latest releases at the back of a clothes shop on Park Street. Si John was serving, and thought to retrieve a white label from the racks beneath Christian's nose, saying `you might like this...' Christian only had to glance at the label to know that he had to make a second purchase. The disc was `Aftermath' by Tricky, featuring the `honey-coated' vocals of one Martina. The Kid had surfaced, his own man now.
Living in Bristol, devotees of the Massive sound, it was natural that from the moment of its opening deep bass rumble, `Aftermath' would become a firm favourite with us. Like Momus' `What Will Death Be Like?', and the contemporaneous sound of DJ Shadow's `In/Flux', it sounded unique, odd, and unrepeatable - the last word in slow, heavy, end-of-the-millennium love songs. (Martina has yet to sing more hauntingly, except perhaps on `Makes Me Wanna Die'.) It was, and still is, an easy song to envisage Bristol in ruins to. Tricky journeys through the rubble of the desolated city, `down to the centre, which used to be central'... It fills me with joy to hear it - dark music doesn't seem that dark when it's been in your daily diet for fifteen years, and you were schooled by Factory Records and the situationists.
Listening back to `Blue Lines', as we did post-`Aftermath', and have done many times since, Adrian Thaws, born in Knowle, Bristol, 1968, sounds like a Kid. Not just because of the younger, higher voice, but in the keep-to-myself sentiments, in the self-portrait of a proud and lonely boy waiting for love and the extra level of confidence required to strike out on his own.
Sometime after the appearance of Tricky's and Shadow's first definitive cuts, someone, who no doubt thought themselves very clever at the time, coined the phrase `trip hop', a phrase that Tricky rightly hates. In 1995 at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, he wrong-footed an unthinking section of his audience by asking if there were `any fans of trip hop in the house'. Those that roared their approval were told, `Well, you can fuck off home then.' A cruel trick to pull, but understandable that, in a world of favour and misfortune, Tricky should seek to protect his artistic space from the invasive virus of fashion. It's a stance that fans of Dexy's will be familiar with. Were it not for his recent and strange admission that he did not write `Come On Eileen', Kevin Rowland would be the man to beat in terms of tough, uncompromising attitude. Dexy's once started a show with a full minute of silence, the lights full on, waiting for the audience to settle and pay attention in the time-honoured fashion of classical music audiences. Later in that same show, trying to get the silence back again, Rowland suddenly snarled, `Why don't you fuck off to the bar if drinking is what you're here for?' Rowland is a fund of such stories. Certainly there's a defiant strain of egomania at work, but it's also respect for the means of expression, the two-way process between artist and listener, that's at stake. Tricky has pulled the same tricks by playing live with lights both full up and fully out. Momus, having pulled all his stunts at the writing stage, cannot resort to these tactics:
Elsewhere Momus points the finger at the group whose approach is the antithesis of his own, arguing that Noel Gallagher `is launching an attack on imagination, intelligence, innovation, self-doubt... values which no-one seems to want to defend.' [On Oasism] I still find it surprising that more vitriol isn't spat Oasis' way - there's more to music (and life) than a couple of whistleable anthems and a singer who makes a virtue out of not giving a fuck.
Were it not for its built-in obsolescence, you could say that `trip hop' is the new rock, and it too, as Rowland and Vic Godard but surprisingly few other troopers have demanded of rock, has to be destroyed. And if something survives that has its artistic soul intact, how about reverting, if not to the territorial moniker of `Avonbeat', to Gilles Peterson's term, `abstract hip hop', which is an entertainingly confusing concept to get your head around, or Tricky's own `hip hop blues', which conveys the music's mood much better and avoids this spurious hang-up on drugs that everyone seems to think popular music has...
Back to the aftermath of `Aftermath'. Slowly, very slowly (that's the way in Bristol - it's a mix of West Coast perfectionism and a liking for the life of leisure) stories came through about the age that Tricky had sat on the song before releasing it, and about how Martina and he had met, and whether or not they were lovers. But of course you knew they were. Made to sing together, or should we say, made to entwine their voices, in a coupling that continues to pervert the stereotype of male rap, female chorus.
A year or so later, `Aftermath' appeared again, dressed in a major label sleeve, adorned by plugger's £1.99 stickers. It was almost as much a surprise as the earlier release. Anything that happens in Bristol is a surprise; it's one of the joys of living there. The lead track was the original mix, by and large let be, but there was also the bonus of the `I Could Be Looking For People' remix, a searing re-invention that, with the aid of Howie B and its jagged interlude of faster beats and bass, gave you an idea of Tricky's capabilities.
When the chance finally came to lounge at length in Trickyworld, it was hard not to be disappointed by what was still a considerable, if not always immediate, achievement. `Maxinquaye' seems to tail off as it comes closer to its final sounds, but there is music there for many different moods above and beyond the darkest; you just need to be in the right frame of mind. Naturally listeners who had never dwelt in hip hop ironically went for the rockin' version of Public Enemy's `Black Steel'. (Hopefully it led at least a few listeners back to the source.) Part of the joy of `Maxinquaye' was watching what Tricky did with words and music that Massive and Portishead were also using. `Overcome' vs `Karmacoma'; `Hell Is Round The Corner' vs `Euro Child' vs `Glory Box', the latter setting up the possibility of an intriguing comparison between Martina and Beth Gibbons.
The duo's performances of `Black Steel' and `Suffocated Love' on `Later' were perhaps the most compelling that show has ever seen. Martina, ever so slightly self-conscious, intent on ignoring the cameras and the audience. Concentrated, deadly serious, and wearing a Fred Perry with a style a thousand Bratpop bands will never muster, you could almost see inside of Tricky, see the exact point those dark articulations were emanating from. Not because he was being invitingly transparent, but because he was forcibly sucking you in.
His next move was to team up with, amongst others, that so-called misery of the '80s, Terry Hall, bringing out the kind of vocal performance rare over the top of the former Special's own, chirpier music. Hall's voice is still surprising, when it comes in after Tricky's, on `Poems'. The `Nearly God' LP is, in Tricky's words, `a collection of brilliant demos' recorded in two and a half weeks. But that was the problem - Tricky's best work sounds completed, even when its sparseness is the vital ingredient. Only half of the ten `Nearly God' tracks sound finished. Easily bored, Tricky had moved on to his next incarnation before the current one had properly materialised.
Last year saw the Prince of Darkness indulging in some `Pre-Millennium Tension'. As an attempt to shake himself free of all the Tricky-ettes, `P-MT' has undoubtedly been successful; but has he got lost up a cul-de-sac? Ironically, the most immediate tracks are the hip hop covers, `Bad Dreams' and `Lyrics Of Fury'; ironic because Tricky's success is precisely a result of his reinvention of hip hop and his naturally not needing to ape trans-Atlantic flavas. Otherwise only `Makes Me Wanna Die' and `Christiansands' let the listener in, for all that on the latter Tricky's voice is at its most ruthless and sounds full of holes, as rough on the ears as sandpaper is to the touch. Elsewhere the alienation alternately boils and freezes over; the record opens up about as often as a gap in the traffic on the A1. Will it reveal itself over time, like a Beefheart album?
As for the possession of his soul by the Devil - testified to in tracks like `My Evil Is Strong', a gunshot-riddled anti-song if ever there was one - Tricky has said that, for him, `evil is confusion. Just confusion and not being cared for.' So Tricky's confusion is strong, and yet he comes across as having as much of an ingrained, unalterable character as Mr Cod-liver Oil himself, Morrissey, and only one way of presenting it. Then again, his voice has dropped octaves since `Blue Lines' so that by now the Kid has developed the aforementioned growling rasp that, like Tom Waits', speaks of years of vocal chord abuse. Like DJ Shadow and Lee `Scratch' Perry, Tricky's fortā is soundscaping more than songwriting, so that probably his best way forward is production, coupled with occasional solo lunacy a la Scratch.