Tricky may not have invented triphop, but on Maxinquaye, his critically lauded 1995 solo debut, he came pretty close to perfecting it. With teenage co-conspirator Martine sweetening the sinister, dub-heavy mix, auteur Tricky scored a post-Prince sex symphony—a violent, cerebral swirl that came with menacing machine drums, lulling atmospherics, and a rhythmic throb so hazy that you sometimes wondered if the bassist were nodding off. Ambient seducer though he was, Tricky never obscured the catchy parts of his songs, puncturing the album’s dense sonic miasma with enough slow-beat hooks and haunting melodies to fuel an army of DJ collectives. A graduate of pioneering British “ambient hiphop” troupe Massive Attack, Tricky was also industry-savvy, warding off cred-checkers with a propulsive version of Public Enemy’s classic “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” True to form, Tricky turned in a perverse reading of the track that unearthed the chanting piece of PiL-damaged art rock that Chuck D apparently buried alive with his group’s own incendiary interpretation. To hear the coolly detached Martine intone, “They wanted me for their army or whatever/Picture me givin’ a damn I said never” is to long for a draft to dodge.

“Black Steel” was only one of Maxinquaye’s deeply unsettling highlights, though. “Overcome,” the album’s downbeat aural agenda-setter, and “Hell Is Around the Corner,” a crackling, jazz-soaked ballad, also broke aesthetic sound barriers, simultaneously defining and transcending an inchoate genre. With the careening “Brand New You’re Retro,” the frequently foreboding Tricky showed that he had a sly sense of humor, too, tossing off a bitchy ‘n’ brainy put-down that made the average rapper’s spite seem like B-grade knock-knock material.

All of which only made Tricky’s pretentious streak even more off-putting, once it fully kicked in and took over his records. Self-importance is an occupational hazard for nearly all avant-gardists, but the caustic cynicism smart-boy Tricky offered up with his hoarse wheeze of a voice was the sound of sour grapes being pressed. “I am genius,” he seemed to be saying as the accolades slowed to a trickle. “Hear me bore.” Tricky may have joked in interviews about covering the Grease soundtrack (still a great idea; I’d love to hear Martine sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You”), but on releases such as the claustrophobic Pre-Millennium Tension and the just plain phobic Angels With Dirty Faces, the artiste was all psycho-dirge work and no hedonistic play—a rather dull boy. And a more self-absorbed one, too. The pretty warbling (Björk and PJ Harvey, among others, have played the role of Martine over the years) that had worked so effectively as a counterpoint to Tricky’s raspy lower register was increasingly crowded out by bad vibes and lyrical paranoia, with the effect on the listener being something akin to descending from the third circle of hell to the fifth.

On the new Blowback, Tricky reverses course, boldly going where he once went before, even as he ups the ante on his pop songwriting and swaps out his moody blues for a little sweetness and light. He’s still singing about the need to breathe (a lifelong struggle with asthma has given the man his recurring theme), but this time out he sounds more mantric than manic. On the bouncy album opener, “Excess,” he even comes up with a chorus that bobs and weaves craftily in the direction of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” A feel-good hit? Hardly. “I believe in people lyin’/I believe in people dyin’,” co-writer Alanis Morissette sings over the track’s vintage Talking Heads-style guitar twitch and frenetic rhythmic swell. Nonetheless, a soulfully yelped “Keep livin’” is the song’s insistent catchphrase, an affirmative sentiment that animates even the scary moments of Blowback.

Not that there are many of those, what with gracefully plucked acoustic guitar and guest stars such as Live’s Ed Kowalczyk and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea breaking out all over the place. In fact, if you told me that Tricky’s guest on the effervescent “Wonder Woman” was Phil Collins (don’t worry—it isn’t), I wouldn’t be surprised. The track is Tricky’s “Paperlate,” a soaring, nonsensical pop-rock anthem with nary a measure of ill musical will. (Note to Genesis: If you’re looking for a new front man, look no further than John Frusciante, the Phil-voiced Chili Pepper who sings lead on the song’s chorus.) The childlike “Your Name” is even goofier. A duet with erstwhile Groove Gardener Ambersunshower, the track recalls the sweetly innocent songs that Maureen Tucker sang with the Velvet Underground. As with the VU, it’s hard to say if Tricky is being ironic or sincere, but the airy hummability of the track makes it easy not to care.

Blowback isn’t all fun and games, however. Toastmaster Hawkman pitches in on about half of the LP’s songs, contributing edgy, machine-gun vocals to tracks such as the crunching, Metallica-sized “Bury the Evidence” and a cover of Nirvana’s great “Something in the Way.” Showing off his skill for idiosyncratic interpretation once again, Tricky remakes Nevermind’s last word in his own image, chipping away at the original’s Beatlesesque exterior and finding the emotional vacuum that gave the song its power in the first place. Bleak but beautiful, “Something in the Way” is Blowback’s creepy centerpiece and a rumbling setup to Cyndi Lauper’s star turn on the just as depressed “Five Days.” Both tracks are brooding, Maxinquaye-styled contrasts to the new LP’s relatively sunny disposition—potent, unfriendly reminders of Tricky’s knack for dark sonic seduction that raise Blowback’s pop contours into mercifully sharp relief. CP