On Angels With Dirty Faces, Tricky’s third solo album since he left Massive Attack, the trip-hop wizard leaves behind his familiar ethereal soundscapes and old-school covers for burning live instruments and big themes: money, love, and indifferent record labels. Guitar noises ricochet like bullets, drums and bass thump like deadbeat hearts, words are scatted or elongated like the spray paint of taggers on highway underpasses. This is the man who once built a beat from the snap of a shotgun reloading and made sirens something you could hum to. Tricky is a terrific urban ventriloquist. At the core, he is blues people, or wants to be. But nobody itches populist paranoia bette, not Trent nor Tupac.
But for all the fuzzed fury of Angels, I’m starting to feel a bit paranoid about Tricky. His portraits of ghetto heat and concrete are coming off as idealized, too simplistic. He conjures up terrific desperado scenes, but they are basically just archetypal blues bits and double-time, triple-time beats. It feels as if Tricky’s simply inventing a new trend: Section 8 Chic. In places on the record, where he starts to sound like a soundtrack for a CK One commercial, you can’t really tell whether Tricky’s telling true tales of native sons or pimping poverty.
On “Singing the Blues,” Martina Topley-Bird, the Tammi Terrell to Tricky’s Marvin Gaye (and the mother of his child), croons about the bills she has to pay. But while Tricky can strut like Travolta at the end of Saturday Night Fever, a perfect mix of sexual confusion and low-rent dreams, Topley-Bird sounds as if she’s drowning. She hits her notes like Billie Holiday with a throat of aluminum siding, floating between a three-note guitar hook and hi-hat snare snap. The song embodies Tricky’s smoking-queen aesthetic and penniless boredom: “I’ve been workin’ so hard/Just came home from my job/I looked down in my wallet/God dammit/I’ve been bought,” Topley-Bird whines angrily, without tears. She ends up scatting her words into cool blue flames. By the end of the song she’s begging for $10 and for the blues to leave her alone: “You got me singin’ oh-oooh/I say the blues has got me singin’/Baby.”
I’m tempted to say it’s a fake. Tricky messes everything up. Is he for real or just playing with my head?
Tricky chooses to sing about welfare and poverty in a palliative fashion rather than trying to fix things. He doesn’t exhort his audience to action; he asks them to empathize with his own situation.
Yet Tricky wants to be universal. He transcends scene politics to straddle social and personal issues, polemic and complaint. It all comes out on the wax: The refrain of “Money Greedy,” the album’s kinetic opener, could be the album’s theme: “Trample on my soul.” He also hauls in the pathos of James Baldwin, Billie Holiday’s blues, the Sex Pistol’s “EMI,” Prince’s “Slave,” and Public Enemy’s critique of corporate culture. The album’s pith lies in its details, not its atmospherics.
If he is trying to glorify the ghetto and think big, it’s out of a personal need to rethink his past. He drops autobiographical tidbits the way DJs drop samples. They make his songs more poignant. Tricky was born in Bristol; his half-Welsh, half-African mother committed suicide when he was 4 (mentioned on “Analyze Me”). His father soon bolted, leaving the kid to be passed between his grandmother and uncles. He ended up in the white ghetto of Knowley West (referenced on “6 Minutes”), surrounded by petty thieves. Before long, he became one himself, eventually getting busted on a forgery charge (hence all the musical styles he cops and his penchant for covering old-school raps).
Now Tricky, who looks like a voodoo doll and chases his joint with an inhaler, is a musical orphan. He confesses that “I’m too scared to be a gun toting gangster wanna-be,” on “Demise.” Apparently, he’s still stuck in Knowley West, left out, the black kid in the poor white ghetto turned the electronica “Lord of Slow Beats” trying to mix emotions with machinery.
Through his personal hell, he filters the politics of both the working class and record companies. The latter comes across with limited success. But the themes all spin from the same left-wing viewpoint. Tricky boasts about having gotten out of the ghetto (as sung on “Money Greedy”) but can’t forget having been there.
“Broken Homes,” a duet with P.J. Harvey, is the perfect example of how his personal and political issues clash; it’s not entirely successful. The song, played as a march, sweeps up on gospel-accented wings right out of Nick Cave’s goth songbook and finds Tricky and P.J. weaving inner-city blues with corporate contempt. When Tricky sings: “We loose our voice more each year,” he could be singing about himself or the thousands of black men lost to jails, violence, and poverty. He makes the connection a few bars later. He tells us that fame is, effectively, death: “False laugh, forged autograph/First my body, now my corpse.”
His imagery staggers from rue to rapture: Folks die, run away, and get reborn throughout the album. Angels isn’t so much about the blues as about getting over them. Angels disappear, the devil gets inside some headphones, and love won’t leave the two singers alone. At one point, Tricky threatens to shoot his head off in Seattle like Kurt Cobain but finds out that stray bullets hurt. The music is just as cut-up: Beats split into fast-times. Keyboards slobber through the mix. Guitars honk; sirens call. The music and themes are defiantly blue, but frantically psycho.
On “Carriage for Two,” Topley-Bird and Tricky manage to creep out a lullaby about their daughter Maisey. Like the rest of Angels, it conflates the political with the personal. Way-down blues bars yield to cellos bowed into hits of lightning. Wandering in and out of this underground suite, Tricky tells us he calls his kid “Boo.” He tries to be dutiful, to dote, to do right by the child. By the end of the song, he declares in his usual mumble: “Your father’s rich your father’s from the get-go.”
He has mastered the language of the ghetto, to the point of co-opting the word, yet he has survived it, too, survived his growing pains by blurring machines into emotions and calling it art. He’s weaved a blurry line from Lightnin’ Hopkins to the post-hiphop Projects. He’s made the blues political again, and given electronica a human face.CP
Tricky performs Monday, July 20, at the 9:30 Club.