Tuesday, August 28, 2018

David Bowie circa The Next Day and David Bowie Is @ the V&A

New York Times, March 6 2013

by Simon Reynolds

On “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, the new single from David Bowie’s comeback album The Next Day, one line jumps out:  “We will never be rid of these stars.”  The original typed lyric sheet, recently posted on Bowie’s Facebook page, features a hand-scrawled annotation sketching out an idea for the video:  “stars like Greek gods, cruel and controlling”.  The promo turned out slightly differently, although at the start  Bowie, looking and sounding like a doddery old gent, enters a grocery store and catches sight of a celebrity gossip magazine called Pantheon. The singer and actress Tilda Swinton play an elderly couple whose “nice life” is disrupted by a pair of demonic stars, who  stalk and spy on them, then  invade the house and  control them like marionettes.  

 But the song itself is less literal.  “The Stars” portrays celebrities as an overlord class of vampiric and tyrannical beings “soaking up our primitive world,”who “burn you with their radiant smiles”and “trap you with their beautiful eyes.”  But stars are also faintly pitiable creatures, “jealous” of the quiet lives and grounded existence of nonentities.  “I hope they live forever”, Bowie sings, a nod to the notion of fame as immortality, the compensation for its otherwise distorting effects.  Death and fame are closely braided themes shadowing The Next Day, a dark, melancholy and surprisingly harsh-sounding album that’s receiving acclaim as Bowie’s strongest effort in decades.

A superstar critiquing celebrity culture could be taken as somewhat hypocritical, of course. Especially given Bowie’s full-spectrum assault on the public’s attention this year.  For most of the 21st Century, Bowie had disappeared from view, even as the glam theatricality and gender-bending he pioneered in the 1970s was dominating pop through figures like Lady Gaga. Most assumed that he’d effectively retired, physically exhausted after a life-threatening heart attack and surgery in 2003 and creatively spent after four decades of self-reinvention. But in a brilliantly organized stealth attack, Bowie returned without warning in January with “Where Are We Now”, the herald for The Next Day.  That album, his first in a decade, asserts Bowie’s continued relevance as a musician. 

Meanwhile, his stature in pop history as the performer who has most convincingly bridged the gap between the worlds of art and rock is being shored up by a retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a celebration of his mastery of all the non-audio aspects of pop, from clothes and stage sets to record artwork and video.

Bowie has always had an ambivalent attitude to fame. His biggest American hit of the Seventies, “Fame” was a harrowing dispatch from inside the paranoid bubble of superstardom. He’s returned to the subject frequently, from his 1999 album Hours, an exploration of “fame as injury” according to  Bowieologist Nick Stevenson,  to his new album’s (You Will) Set the Earth on Fire,” the sales pitch of a svengali to a potential protégé.  Bowie’s career has been governed by a bi-polar rhythm, alternating between relentless pursuit of the limelight and shattered retreat from it. Now, after his longest period of seclusion ever, the 66 year old Englishman and New York resident is back for what could well be his last blast, the supernova of his stardom.

Yet while Bowie himself has been virtually absent for a decade, the Bowie-esque has been omnipresent.  After the Nineties, a period dominated by the authenticity and “real-ness” of grunge and gangsta rap, the 2000s saw the return of glitz and artifice. All the things that Bowie, alongside fellow glam rockers like Roxy Music and Alice Cooper, explored to the hilt during the early 1970s— over-the-top theatricality and spectacular staging, extremist fashion and sexual androgyny—became the defining principles of 21st Century pop.

Lady Gaga is the most visible inheritor of Bowieism, from her freaky costumes to her gender games (the male alter-ego Jo Calderone, the artfully concocted rumor that she’s a hermaphrodite).  But there have also been figures like Adam Lambert, the American  Idol star, who called his first major tour Glam Nation, and, on a more alternative level,  cult performer Amanda Palmer and her punk cabaret outfit The Dresden Dolls.  You can see Bowie-like currents in recent black pop too, from rappers like Drake who make their own fame the primary subject of their music, to the sharply styled theatricality of Janelle Monae, to Beyonce’s Ziggy Stardust-like gambit of creating the alter ego Sasha Fierce as a vehicle for her walk-on-the-wild-side impulses. Above all, there’s Nicki Minaj, who has her own alter-ego, the gay male character Roman Zolanski.  While it’s unlikely that Minaj is directly influenced by Bowie, the parallels between his serial personae and her constant image changes are clear. As one presenter on a video pop channel put it, “there isn’t a single ‘Nicki Minaj’...  she says she’s just being herself, but who she is changes every day.”  

Among Bowie’s most famous pronouncements in his early career were “I feel like an actor when I’m on stage, rather than a rock artist” and “if anything, maybe I’ve helped establish that rock’n’roll is a pose.” Before Bowie came along, rock defined itself against show biz and Hollywood. There was meant to be a more or less direct correspondence between the performer and their real-life personality.  But Bowie talked about playing characters, such as the fictional rock god Ziggy Stardust, or the cold, remote Thin White Duke.  Like a movie star taking on different roles that refract a fundamental unchanging charisma, Bowie was paradoxically the same and yet different each time he came before the public with a new album and tour.

Bowie embraced metamorphosis from the start. In his pre-fame 1960s, he hopped through five bands and a variety of musical styles and looks before connecting with the public circa 1970.  Once his career took off, the shape-shifting took on a new urgency.  Pop taste is fickle. Some stars manage to become hardy perennials, but most are lucky to eke out a living playing their hits to an audience of nostalgic diehards. Bowie circumvented pop’s cruel turnover by turning himself into the New Thing, again and again. As he said in 1977, “my role as an artist in rock is rather different to most, I encapsulate things very quickly...  my policy has been that as soon as a process works, it’s out of date. I move to another area.”  Perhaps the fashion world has so lionized Bowie (Gucci co-sponsored the Victoria & Albert exhibition) not just for his cutting-edge style, but because he’s so thoroughly assimilated fashion’s own logic of remorseless supercession.

But there’s more to Bowie’s compulsive self-reinvention than a career strategy.  It’s an artistic impulse (the desire to challenge oneself) and it relates also to existential anxiety (a fantasy of perpetual rejuvenation).  What Bowie was really developing during his Seventies heyday was a new postmodern psychology based around flux and mutability.  His great precursor and influence here was Andy Warhol, the inspiration for his song “Andy Warhol” and a role he would actually play in the 1996 movie Basquiat.  Analysing Warhol, the critic Donald Kuspit wrote of “the protean artist-self with no core”—a description that fits Bowie perfectly.  Likewise David Bowie Is, the intransitive title of the V & A exhibition, signifies “how wondrous ‘tis to live in a world that contains this polymath genius!” but also “fill in the blank space”. His career has seen that emptiness filled up, then erased, then filled up again, repeatedly.

But living like a cross between a chameleon and a magpie (Bowie is a voracious assimilator of influences and borrower of ideas) has its downsides.  Read the biographies or the vintage interviews, and it’s striking how often intimations of hollowness occur, the sense of a man who is outwardly super-confident but who battles feelings of self-loathing and doubt.  “I honestly feel that there is something incredibly lacking in my life”... “I’m not an innovator. I’m really just a Photostat machine. I pour out what has already been fed in.” ... “When I heard someone say something intelligent, I used it later as if it were my own. When I saw a quality in someone that I liked, I used it later as if it were my own”.   As much as artistic hunger or artful career management, a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I've done” has propelled the restless remaking of self, the endless switches of sound and style.  

Perusing the lavish book that accompanies David Bowie Is, with its dazzling procession of poses and images and its weighty critical essays tracking the dense cross-references to pop culture and high art, you get a sense of how much hard work it must be to be Bowie.  Director Julien Temple, who made some videos for Bowie and cast him as an advertising executive in his 1986 movie Absolute Beginners, has spoken of the “grueling nature of reinvention... the huge creative surge required to do that again and again. It takes its toll, psychically.”

During the Nineties, Bowie did seem to be running almost on empty. (Indeed it’s noticeable that David Bowie Is features little material from after the mid-Eighties). For a while he subsumed himself in the collective identity of a hard rock band, Tin Machine. Then he tried reverting to earlier successful stages of his career. For Black Tie White Noise, Bowie reunited with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, the producer of his 1983 blockbuster Let’s Dance.  For the adventurous but confused Outside, he re-enlisted Brian Eno, his foil during the experimental mid-Seventies Berlin trilogy of Low, ‘Heroes’, and Lodger.  Switching strategy, Bowie attempted to refuel using cutting-edge electronic dance ideas on Earthling, a charming if semi-successful dabble in drum and bass. Finally he regrouped with Tony Visconti, the producer on several of his classic Seventies and Eighties albums, for the solid but subdued Heathen and Reality, records on which he seemed to reach a kind of settlement with himself.

The Next Day sees Visconti at the helm again, but this time Bowie seems galvanized by a desperate energy that over-rides the frailty palpable in his haggard vocals.  Imagery of decay, debility and dejection pervade the record: “here I am/not quite dead/my body left to rot in a hollow tree”, “just walking the dead”, “I gaze in defeat at the stars in the night/the light in my life burned away/there will be no tomorrow.” Some of the morbidity-- references to “a room full of bloody history” in “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”—may be influenced by books on Medieval tyrants that Bowie has reportedly been reading obsessively.  But elsewhere the imagery seems obviously inspired by his own brush with mortality.

The Grim Reaper is no stranger to the Bowie songbook. He covered Jacques Brel’s “My Death, while his big UK hit “Ashes to Ashes” derived its title from the Anglican burial service.  “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” on Outside, addressed “the fact that life is finite,” Bowie has explained. “That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.”

But judging by The Next Day, Bowie’s close encounter of the near-fatal kind has only muddied things. There is little evidence of serenity or enlightenment.  The climactic song, “Heat,” is a homage to the existentialist balladry of Scott Walker, who covered “My Death” before Bowie did and whose own recent work includes songs about the human body’s abject vulnerability and doomed dictators like Mussolini and Ceaucescu. “My father ran the prison,” Bowie intones enigmatically, moving through ominous lines about missions grown dark and worlds ending, before confessing “ I don’t know who I am” and “I am a seer/But I am a liar”. 

Warhol believed “superstitiously” that fame could “keep at bay” Death, claims Donald Kuspit. When Bowie declares “I hope they live forever” in “The Stars”, it this a gesture of bitter solidarity with “the dead ones and the living”, all those stars who believed and who still believe in fame as salvation? You can reinvent yourself over and over, but Death, the Great Uninventor, will catch up with you. The naked torment of such apprehensions has shaped David Bowie’s twilight masterpiece.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tricky - reviews, interviews, retrospectives

the making of Tricky's Maxinquaye 
 Spin feature package on the Best Albums of the Nineties
by Simon Reynolds

Although all but one of its tracks were recorded in London, Maxinquaye has
everything to do with Tricky's home town Bristol. Mark Stewart, ex-frontman of
avant-funk legends The Pop Group, traces trip hop's hybrid sound back to the
city's subcultural "interbreeding" in the early Eighties. "In Bristol, all the
different ghettos were mixing-- we'd go to reggae 'blues' parties, industrial
punk events, and hip hop jams at this club called The Dugout. Back then, Bristol
was actually more connected with New York's rap scene than even London was."

Through his friendship with The Wild Bunch (the DJ collective that evolved into
Massive Attack) Stewart became a mentor to Tricky. It was Stewart who first
pushed Tricky onstage (at a Smith & Mighty show), and who encouraged him to
start a career outside Massive Attack. "He's my chaos," says Tricky. "When
people say I'm weird, I say 'you've got to hang around Mark'. See, he's not in
society--he lives out of a suitcase which contains, like, a jar of mayonnaise,
cassettes, and articles clipped out of magazines. He lived with me for two
months and got me chucked out of my flat!" It was while they were room mates
that Stewart persuaded Tricky to scam funding off Massive Attack's management
for some solo recording. "His idea was to spend most of it on booze!" laughs
Tricky. "So we got them to send us 600 quid, drank half of it and used the rest
on studio time." The result was "Aftermath", a downtempo drift of "hip hop
blues" that eventually became Tricky's debut single. Stewart was "executive
producer, really", says Tricky. The track came together haphazardly; Stewart
remembers the session as "just me and Tricks messing about on an 8 track,"
building a groove out of looped beats and samples that Tricky pulled from "some
guy's pile of records". Outside his house, Tricky saw Martina Topley-Bird--then
a schoolgirl in uniform--waiting for a bus, and on impulse he invited her to
sing on the track. "I laid down a guide vocal for her to sing over, but we
decided to keep my voice in, 'cos it sounded haunting." This slightly
out-of-synch pairing of Martina's dulcet croon and Tricky's bleary rapping
became the model for much of Maxinquaye. There was a fourth collaborator on
"Aftermath"; Tricky believes he channelled the post-apocalyptic scenario lyrics
from his mother, who died when he was four. "I found out later that she used to
write words, poetry, but never showed them to anybody."

Tricky offered "Aftermath" to Massive, who were still pulling together their
1991 debut Blue Lines. But, chuckles Tricky, the band's 3D "told me 'it's shit,
you're never going to be a producer". "Aftermath" stayed on cassette for three
years, unreleased; Tricky also fell out of touch with Martina. After Blue Lines
came out, Tricky was in limbo, living on a retainer wage from Massive but doing
nothing. "All I did was smoke weed and drink, hang around in bars, and go to
clubs from Wednesday to Sunday." He sank into a torpid slough of despond,
aggravated by marijuana-induced paranoia; after an all-night session, he'd
sometimes see demons in his living room.

This dark period inspired Tricky'd next recording, "Ponderosa," with lyrics like
"I drown myself in sorrow" and references to "different levels of the devil's
company". "Ponderosa" was one of a number of tracks recorded in London with
engineering wizard Howie B, after Tricky had procured some demo time off Island
Records. "Tricky was living with me and my girlfriend Harriet for a while,"
remembers Howie. "Kippers for breakfast, and him kipping on a couch in the front
room." The drunkenly swaying, metallic percussion of "Ponderosa" was "inspired
from Indian music, bhangra, that sort of tabla feel," he says, while the song's
ultra-morose atmosphere, he speculates, stemmed from "Tricky being in flux with
Massive, not knowing if he was in the band any more".

Howie B. believed that he was set to be Tricky's partner in the album project,
but management conflicts led to "a legal nightmare" and resulted in almost an
album's worth of tunes being stranded in limbo. Although "Ponderosa" helped
clinch Tricky's deal with Island, Howie was left in the cold. "I got shagged, I
walked away with a sour taste in my mouth." Meanwhile, Tricky bought a home
studio and started work on the album in Harlesden in North West London, where he
and Topley-Bird were ensconced as house mates, although they barely knew each
other. "It was a spacy time," Tricky recalls. He'd moved from Bristol to a town
where he knew hardly anybody, and "I got so into making the record, I cut people
off, stopping using the phone." Aggravating his desolate Harlesden surroundings
and isolation, Tricky was listening to a glum soundtrack--Billy Holliday, The
Geto Boys and his boyhood favorites The Specials. The "concrete bleak sound" of
Specials classics such as "Ghost Town" is just one thread in Maxinquaye's
tapestry. There's the obvious rap ancestry: the cinematic hip hop noir of Erik B
& Rakim's "Follow The Leader", Public Enemy (Tricky hailed Chuck D as "my
Shakespeare" and got Martina to sing a gender-bending indie-rock makeover of
PE's "Black Steel"). But Maxinquaye is also steeped in the influence of English
art-rock and post-punk weirdos---Bowie, Gary Numan, Japan, Peter Gabriel, and
Kate Bush ("I think she's in the same league as Bob Marley and John Lennon,"
Tricky gushes). Even more unlikely, Tricky claims that the gorgeous aural
malaise of "Abbaon Fat Tracks" got its curious title because "it reminded me of
Abba-- Abba fucked up, and with phat beats."

An enigmatic tribute to his mother Maxine Quaye, the album's title was
originally intended as Tricky and Martina's collective band name until the
rapper capitulated to record company pressure and agreed to record under his nom
de microphone. Released in 1995 to massive acclaim, Maxinquaye worked
simultaneously as an autobiographical account of one man's struggle and as a
wider allegory; the record captured the era's pre-millenial tension and
sociocultural deadlock without ever making an overtly political statement, let
alone anything as crass as a protest song. Evoking the orphaned drift of the
Nineties just as Sly Stone's 1971 There's A Riot Goin' On expressed the caged
and curdled idealism of the post-counterculture moment, Maxinquaye seemed to be
about the inability of Tricky's generation to imagine utopia, let alone reach it
or build it. "We're all fucking lost!", Tricky told me at the time. "I can't see
how things are gonna get better. I think we have to de stroy everything and
start again. I can't pretend I've got the answers. Bob Marley, he could write
songs about freedom and love. I'm just telling the truth that I'm confused, I'm
paranoid, I'm scared, I'm vicious, I'm spiteful." Yet despite it's unrelentingly
gloomy vision, Maxinquaye is ultimately a redemptive experience. The best album
of the decade?

essay about Maxinquaye
director's cut version - Village Voice, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

    From rhythm-and-blues to house, Britain invariably comes
up with its own spin on whatever Black America originates,
often following it up by invading White America.  Not with
rap, though.  After the pathos of early UK attempts at rap
(forever symbolised, in my mind, by the Anglicised moniker of
Derek B), things have improved somewhat with such solid
Public Enemy-modelled crews as Gunshot and Fun-Da-Mental. But
none of these "homegrown rap" units have managed to matter in
their own land, let alone made an impression in America.

    For various reasons, hip hop has never achieved the focal
cultural role for black British youth that is has for
African-Americans.  If you want to make a really strident
anti-assimilationist statement of blackness in the
UK, you re-affirm your Caribbean roots via dub or dancehall,
become conscious Rasta or rude-boy raggamuffin.  Hip hop, a
US import, can't compete with the recreation of Jamaica as an
internal colony within the UK.,

     Which is not to say that hip hop hasn't had a major
impact on the British subculturescape, just that it's been
one of many imports (soul, jazz-funk, dub, Chicago house,
Detroit techno) to take its place in a spectrum of 'street
sounds'. When acid house hit in 1988, the first generation of
British B-boys, like just about everybody else, were swept up
in the rave fervour; because of Ecstasy, but also 'cos
aciiiied's futurism eclipsed a hip hop that was already
retreating to trad R&B grooviness.  By the early '90s, the
hip hop influence reasserted itself, but through rave as
opposed to against or outside it.  This new style (techno's
electronics plus hip hop's breakbeats and b-b-b-bass) was
called 'hardcore', then 'jungle', then 'drum & bass'.  Drum &
bass is the UK finally coming up with its own spin on hip
hop, by working from a neglected lineage: the phuturism of
electro, the sampladelic wizardry of Mantronix, Steinski's
cut-up collage.  Suppressing the verbals and storytelling
side of rap, drum & bass producers have developed a science
of breakbeats (multiple loops, weird treatments), a veritable
rhythmic psychedelia.  Meanwhile US rap sounds more and more
'plausible' every day, as producers use real musicians and
draw from an ever more circumscribed range of approved '70s
soul & funk samples.

     Elsewhere in Britain--the West Country port of Bristol--
hip hop had become an element in a new sound-system culture,
descended from dub but more ecumenical, drawing from a wider
range of 'deep' musics (soul, jazz-fusion, reggae,
soundtracks, ambient) .  Where London jungle is inner city
music, Bristol's sound-with-no-name is inner-spatial: feed-
your-head, head-nodding fare oriented towards LP's rather
than 12 inches. Hence album artists like Massive Attack,
Portishead, Earthling and Tricky, plus Bristol-in-spirit
producers like DJ Shadow, a white Californian kid who
releases 12 inch singles that sometimes last as long as
albums, via London's Mo' Wax label.  The question of whether
this "trip hop" is entity or figment has incited fierce
debate; personally I think the term does the job of pegging a
hazy-round-the-edges but distinct area of post-rap activity
that's 1/ mostly UK in origin and certainly UK in
critical/commercial favour 2/ decidely out-of-synch with
what's selling in America.  'Trip hop' is often instrumental;
when there are vocals, they are sung as often as rapped; when
there are raps they tend to be sotto voce soliloquies as
opposed to ego-projectile tantrums.

     For all their origins in B-boy culture, jungle and trip
hop share a crucial difference from their estranged US
cousin: race is not the crucial determinant of unity.  Trip
hop and drum & bass are full of multiracial crews and
black/white duos; all-white practioners (Portishead in trip
hop, Droppin' Science and Omni Trio in drum & bass, to name
just a few) don't have to justify themselves like their rare
US equivalents do.  I'm not saying that Britain is a paragon
of racial tolerance and integration, just that there's a
generation who grew up in the '80s who speak the same argot-
alloy of Cockney slang, Jamaican patois and imported B-
boyisms, and who were nourished by a thoroughly miscegenated
aural diet. And so, on their 1991 album "Blue Lines" Massive
Attack cite Public Image Limited and Mahavishnu Orchestra as
influences alongside Joe Gibbs and Marley Marl, while art-
core junglist Goldie of Metalheads digs black (Miles Davis,
Detroit techno-head Carl Craig) and white (David Sylvian,
Brian Eno) alike.

     Racially, stylistically, sexually, Tricky is one
slippery fellow. You can't pin down his meaning or his music,
and that's the way he wants it. "You say what is dis?/mind
your bizness?" he taunts the listener at one point on his
awesome debut "Maxinquaye" (Fourth & Broadway).  He's
actually rubbing your nose in the perplexity aroused by
the perturbing "Suffocated Love", but it could just as well
serve as an epigram for the entire album, a statement of
malignant intent.  "Maxinquaye" hybridises club music and
bedroom music, black and white, rap and sung-melody,
sampladelic textures and real-time instrumentation; it sucks
you into the poly-sexual, trans-generic, mongrelized
mindspace inside Tricky's skull. How did he get 'here'?  I
claimed earlier that race is not the signifier of belonging
when it comes to trip hop and jungle; instead, it's a shared
open-ness to technology and to drugs.  It's the drug/tech
interface that is Tricky's enabler, the boundary-blurring
agent. (It's also his psychic ruination, but later for

    Throughout 'Maxinquaye', Tricky's words are as smeared
and raggedly enunciated as his textures.  For much of the
album, he hides behind the mesmering Martina, either ceding
the spotlight to her or literally shadowing her vocals,
lurking low in the mix and repeating the words in a slurred
mumble, just a little out of synch.  When he does take the
centrestage, Tricky talks in forked-tongues, double-backs,
evades definition. You can see why he would go on record as a
fan of Kurt Cobain, the king of incoherence, and Polly Jean
Harvey, provacateuse non pareil. Like them, he's into gender-
bending; on the cover of the "Overcome" EP he's wearing a
wedding gown and smeared lipstick, and clutching a pistol in
each hand, while Martina plays drag king as Tricky's groom.

     Shades of the video "Boys Keep Swinging", here, and at
one point I thought "the black Bowie" would be nice'n'corny
tag for Tricky. Actually, early Roxy is better as semi-
spurious reference point, for Tricky is a bit like Bryan &
Brian in one body: as a soundscape gardener, Tricky puts the
'psycho' into Eno's 'fictional psycho-acoustic space', while
he easily matches Ferry's reptilian creepiness and facility
for dissecting affairs of the heart using the most cruelly
inappropriate metaphors as his surgical implements.
"Overcome", sung by Martina, and "Suffocated Love", sneered
by Tricky, could be two sides of the same "not exactly
lovers" love-story; kissing as symbol of intimacy-kept-at-
arms-length appears in both songs, with the former's ""don't
want to be on top of your list/never been properly kissed"
and the latter's ""I keep her warm but we never kiss". On
"Overcome", Martina's voice--which seems to crumble in her
mouth like shortcake---is at its most wanly seductive even as
she fends off all boarders: "sure you want to be with
me?/I've got nothing to give...for now emotional ties/they
stay severed".  On the surface, "Suffocated Love" sounds more
upful than the clammy, clingy "Overcome". But Tricky's
gloating, poisonous delivery of the love/hate lyric is so
conflicted and contradiction-riven that you feel nauseous.
 Rhyming "spend your life with me" and 'stifle me",
"Suffocated" is up there with the Sex Pistols' "Submission"
and Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" as a song about the
desire/dread of feminine engulfment.

     "Abbaon Fat Tracks" (quel title!) is even more
unnerving. One minute, Martina's the all-healing mother,
promising "fuck you in/tuck you in/suck you in", the next
she's the sadist threatening "fuck you in the ass/just for a
laugh"--and all in the same listless, crumpled, ghost-of-her-
former self croon, framed by hobbled guitar like the missing
link between 'Shaft' and Keith Levene.  Suck or be sucked:
"Maxinquaye" is all about voracious, oral need,  about just
how far people will go to fill that psychic, void. Hence a
song-title like "Feed Me", or a couplet like "my brain thinks
bomb-like/beware of our appetite": a limitless hunger that
can be extroverted into limitless violence, just as in the
middle of "Suffocated Love" Tricky abruptly shifts from horny
reverie to the Cypress Hill catchprhase "I could just kill a

     For the most part, Tricky directs his rage against
himsel. "Ponderosa" is a grim tale of alcohol and the demon
weed, of addiction as a journey through "different levels of
the Devil's company".  Over clanking, lurching percussion
redolent of Tom Waits 'Swordsfishtrombones, Martina intones
Tricky's black-humorous wordplay--"underneath the weeping
willows/lies a weeping wino", "I drown myself in sorrow"--
while Tricky's backing vocals consist of stoned grunts and
asthmatic exhalations.

     As with the horrorcore rap crews, Tricky's
blunted'n'paranoid anxiety sometimes detaches itself from the
particular and swells into a cosmic, millenarian dread. Hence
titles like "Hell Is Round The Corner", where the svelte
orchestral lushness of Isaac Hayes' "Ike's Rap II" (as also
borrowed by Portishead for "Glory Box") is hollowed out by
a vocal sample slowed to a languishing 16 r.p.m basso-
profundissimo that sounds impossibly black-and-blue.  And
like "Aftermath", where Tricky trumps the morbid fixations of
Gravediggaz, Jeru et al, with a song he's said is an attempt
to see through the eyes of the dead.  Pivoting around a
pained flicker of wah-wahed guitar (on the "Aftermath" EP,
one mix is subtitled "Hip Hop Blues") and a wraith-like
flute, Tricky's post-apocalyptic panorama harks back to the
orphanned, desolate expanse of The Tempations' "Papa Was A
Rolling Stone" and Miles Davis'"He Loved Him Madly" (an elegy
for Duke Ellington).

     Where "Aftermath" seems to find a serene, ghostly
beauty in the depopulated, devastated cityscape, "Strugglin'"
is grimmer because it refuses the lure of entropy, won't
succumb to death-wish.  Its fitful, stumbling beat--whose
sampled components comprise a creaking door, vinyl crackle,
waterdrips and the bloodcurdling sound of a clip being loaded
into a gun--make "Strugglin'" the most disorientating track
on a relentlessly experimental record.  But it's Tricky's
words--blearily confessing how he's "exhausted by the mundane
simplicity" and spooked by "mystical shadows, fraught with no
meaning"--and his voice, as fatigued and eroded as Sly Stone
on "Thank You For Talking To Me, Africa", that are most
disturbing.  "They label me insane (but I think I'm more
normal than most", he sniggers at the end, then collapses
into mirthless, wheezing laughter.

     "Feed Me", which follows and closes the LP, is somehow
even crueller than "Strugglin'", it's twilight beauty
tantalising like a mirage.  Lines like "raised in this
place/now concrete is my religion" and "lost our origins"
again bring to mind Sly, but this time "Africa Talks To You
(the Asphalt Jungle")"; the same sense of exile from the lost
Motherland (the album title "Maxinquaye" obliquely alludes to
an African tribe).  Consider also that he's described
"Aftermath" as a song about "the end of the world and about
my mother" (who died when he was four), and it's easy to see
why Tricky might feel like "sorrow's native son" (to steal a
line from another mama's boy, Morrissey).

     Like Kurt Cobain, Tricky's "non-symbolisable, unnameable
narcissistic wound" is also his gift, making him morbidly
sensitive to the currents of dread and anguish percolating
through the culture.  "Feeling like distortion/the English
disaster": "Maxinquaye" is an anatomy of the cloudy,
contaminated consciousness of a smashed, blocked generation;
'blocked', because it lacks any constructive outlet for its
idealism, 'smashed' cos it can find utopia only through
toxins. Shame attaches itself to this self-medication, all
too apparent in Tricky's use of the word "cheap" --"I roll
the blue bills/"I snort the cheap thrills", "brainwashed by
the cheapest").  Any old stupor--bad Ecstasy, coke, ganja,
booze--will do so long as it blunts an intellect otherwise
too sharply conscious of the impasses and deads end that
constitute the present situation.  It's the revolutionary
impulse turned back against the self, introjected--just as
Marianne Faithful talks of addiction as perverted idealism,
an implosive alternative to the explosive release of
terrorism.  Damp down those fires; 'tis better to fade than
burn.  Like 'Maxinquaye''s cover art--metal surfaces mottled
with corrosion, an abandoned car overgrown with brambles,
flaking paint and posters--Tricky's music makes entropy

picaresque.  But rust never sleeps.

Tricky interview
 Melody Maker, 24th June 1995

by Simon Reynolds,

"I had this psychic drawing done," says Tricky, sucking greedily on the first of the four joints he's to consume in the next hour. Behind his smoke-wreathed head, the Cubist Alps of midtown Manhattan's skyscraperscape is visible through the hotel suite window.
"See, I wanted to know where all this silver was coming from, cos lately I've been wearing loads of silver," he continues. "And the psychic woman told me it symbolises Mercury, the messenger god. She gives you a massage and each different muscle tells different stories. She wrote that I came to this earth too quick. I wasn't ready, but I said, 'F*** it, c'mon, let's go.' And she wrote, 'When he lands, there shall be peace.' Mad, innit?"
Tricky tells me he wrote a song last night inspired by this psychic analysis (on impulse, he'd booked a New York studio and used two days between making his live debut and supporting PJ Harvey to knock out a quick EP). The song's called ‘Prophet’ and Tricky plays it for me on his portable DAT-Walkman. It's an uncanny feeling, listening through the headphones to Tricky's eerie rasp, then glancing up and looking straight into his eyes. The music – to be released under the name Starving Souls – is brittle, diffuse and denuded, peculiarly reminiscent of the Raincoats' Odyshape. Unlike Maxinquaye and the forthcoming Nearly God project (featuring Damon Albarn and Tricky's old hero/new soulmate Terry Hall), Starving Souls isn't sampler-based, it’s all live; Tricky describes it as "world music". Or did he say "weird music"? That goes without saying.


Tricky as prophet? That might be going too far. Tricky himself exhibits a healthy scepticism: "I'll believe anything! I'll pay you 80 dollars, you can tell me a story and I'll believe it. It provides me with material!" And yet I think there's a sense in which Tricky is a conduit for the cloudy, contaminated consciousness of British youth; Tricky as aerial, maybe, tuned into the frequencies of anguish and dread emanating from a jilted generation. He talks of the origins of his lyrics in such terms: "Something passes through me and I don't know what it is."


Who is Tricky? A Sly Stone for the post-rave generation (the Maxinquaye/There's A Riot Goin' On analogy is already a critical commonplace). Chuck D without the dream of a Black Nation to hold his fragile self together. The greatest poet of England's ‘political unconscious’ since John Lydon circa Metal Box. Brian and Bryan in one wiry body, Eno-esque soundscape gardener and Ferry-like lizard of love/hate. The ‘black Bowie’.
I invoke the latter because Tricky's gender-bending imagery (the wedding dress and pistol pose on the cover of Overcome, the mascara and lipstick-caked diva on Black Steel) are reminiscent of nothing so much as the video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, where Bowie impersonates an array of female stereotypes. There really aren't too many black artists who cross-dress (it's hard to imagine Ice Cube in a miniskirt, high heels and false eyelashes, for instance). This shows the extent to which Tricky belongs as much to a British art-rock tradition (Japan, Kate Bush, Bowie, early Roxy) as to the more obvious hip-hop lineage. But it's also yet another indice of the compulsive, almost pathological nature of the man's creativity; like Courtney Love's kinderwhore image, Tricky's transvestitism proclaims ‘something's not right here’. Especially as cross-dressing isn't a marketing gimmick or jape, but something he's done since he was a 15-year-old kid.
"All my mates thought I was mad anyway," he says. "I don't know what my nan felt, though – she never ever said a word, even when I walked out the door with a dress on. I was really lucky, I had mates around me who said, ‘He's mad, leave him alone’."
Did you use the role of weird or holy fool as a kind of armour?
"It was to get attention. Before that, I used to do things like fight, or steal. But that didn't last very long. I found out I didn't have to do anything to be liked, just be myself, and people thought I was weird."
You've said before that you were quite feminine as a child, at least in comparison with your family of hard men.
"I was brought up by women. My nan taught me to defend myself first. But I never had the passion for violence. It was too easy. I got nothing out of it, and it weren't my life."
The fact that Tricky lost his mum at the age of four, and was brought up by a grandma who was convinced that he was the reincarnation of his own dead mother (she'd spook the child out by staring at him intensely for hours) – all this must have a lot to do with Tricky's extravagant forms of ‘acting out’ (as the Americans term dysfunctional behaviour). There's a theory that the sartorial flamboyance and effeminacy of the ‘dandy’ constitute a form of symbolic allegiance to the mother, a perverse attempt to assume her subordinate position in the patriarchal order. In Tricky's case, it could be both a homage to the mother he barely knew, and a way of proclaiming himself an alien even among the B-boy band of outsiders he ran with, his surrogate family.


Although there's nothing literally dub-wise, no heavy echo or reggae basslines, on the record, it's clear that the influence of dub permeates Maxinquaye. The way that Tricky works – f**ing around with sounds on the sampler until his sources are unrecognisable wraiths, ghosts of their former selves; composing music and words spontaneously in the studio; mixing tracks live as they're recorded; retaining the glitches and inspired errors, the hiss and crackle – all this is strikingly akin to early Seventies dubmeisters like King Tubby. And of course there's also the fact that Tricky breathes sensimillia fumes like they're oxygen...
"Dub's an influence in that it isn't perfectionist. Dub, it's just bottom-end heavy with loads of noises, and it's not musically 'correct'. But my biggest influence from dub is the chatters, all the Saxon Sound posse, and especially this guy from London called Champion."
When it comes to the organisation of sound, Tricky's only rivals are artcore drum 'n' bass-heads like Dillinja and Droppin' Science. Like Tricky, these guys are descendants of both dub and hip-hop. See, in Britain, hip-hop's greatest impact didn't come through all that non-starter ‘homegrown UK rap’, but rather as a crucial element in the sound system culture that evolved through the Eighties, and eventually bore fruit in the form of Bristol trip-hop and London jungle. In a sense, in Britain hip-hop returned to its roots in dub (in the proto rap of DJ ‘talkover’ and MC chat, in the reggae sound-system's bass-science, both imported to the Bronx by Jamaican immigrant Kool Herc, the DJ who later invented the art of looping breakbeats).
More than just dub-derived sonic traits (music as a maze-like mix-scape), Tricky and the junglists share a mood, a worldview, even. There's a palpable sense of the demonic pervading both Maxinquaye and darkest drum 'n' bass tracks tike Dillinja's ‘Warrior’ and ‘Angel's Fall’. On the other side of the Atlantic, horrorcore hip-hop units like Gravediggaz (with whom Tricky's just collaborated to create two tracks for his new Hell Is Round The Corner EP) exude the same clammy-palmed emotion: blunted paranoia, swollen into cosmic, millenarian dread. A sense that we're living through Armageddon Time; Babylon's last days.
"Sometimes, I think everything is going to fall apart," says Tricky. "When I had the psychic reading, this woman was really positive; she was, 'No, the world isn't in trouble, we're all going to be all right.' Sorry, I just don't feel that. Especially with money; it's the corniest thing to say that money is the root of all evil, but how true is that?! I can't see how things are gonna get better. Sometimes I feel this is the living hell.
"Look at the conditions we're living in. Living in a city can't be healthy. Look at the way we build these," he says, gesturing vaguely at the corporate concrete monoliths through the window. "I think we've all got a touch of psychosis. In a city, you've got all this energy of people who ain't quite normal; that abnormal energy just reflects off everything and pushes us further down the path.
So it's like psychic pollution, poisoning our minds?
"Yeah, exactly. I could never understand how someone can kill people for money. But the first time I came to New York, I understood it right away. It's just the way these people are living."


The difference between a Rastafarian worldview and Tricky's is that, for the natty dread, the evil is out there. Through their dress and rituals, Rastas exempt themselves from a Fallen World, elevate themselves as the pure in heart destined for Zion. As such, they’re like all fundamentalists; really not so far from the Christian Right Militia in America, in fact, except that the latter direct their fantasies of cleansing apocalyptic violence against the US Federal Government/United Nations conspiracy, and against the ‘mudpeople’ (the racially impure). Unlike the believers, Tricky doesn't distance himself from Babylon, from the system or shit-stem (as some dread put it); he's intimate with evil, on first name terms with the Devil. In his words and his music, Tricky opens the (l)id and lets all this contamination and corruption speak itself, in its own vernacular as opposed to the cut-and-dried polarities of the message-mongering ‘political’ songwriter (who also imagines himself ‘clean’).
"I'm part of this f***in' psychic pollution. I'm just as negative as the next person. I think we have to destroy everything and start again. Everything has to end before it gets any better. And it's not going to happen in our lifetimes. Everything needs to burn and be rebuilt."
Lines like "We're hungry/We take our fill/My brain thinks bomblike/Beware of our appetite"suggest you identify yourself as a part of the problem, that you're convulsed by the same voracious will-to-power that's ruining the world.
"It's like, I can be as greedy as you, I want money, I want cars. I'm conditioned to want that, and the conditioned part of me says, 'Yeah, I'm gonna go out and make money, and build an empire. I'm going to rule my own little kingdom.' But part of me knows that's bullshit. But I am hungry, and you have to watch out for someone who's hungry."


"An 'ungry man is an angry man", so sayeth the prophet Prince Far I. In black music, it sometimes seems that everyone's searching for the kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. Some want it now, and they will not wait: the gangsta tries to build that kingdom on earth, makes a deal with Satan (who himself decided "'tis better to rule in hell than serve in heaven").
Trouble is, there's always a bigger king out there to make you his slave, his boy; at the ultimate degree, there's the State. So the smarter rudeboys turn ‘conscious’ and dream of the lost kingdom of the righteous, calling it Zion, or the Black Nation; the pot of gold at the end of Time's Rainbow. Other black mystics – Hendrix, Sun Ra, Clinton – dub this lost paradise Atlantis, or Saturn, or the Mothership Connection.
Tricky has come up with his own proper name for Zion – Maxinquaye.
"Quaye, that's this race of people in Africa, like Mancunians or something... 'Maxin', that's my mum's name, Maxine, and I've just taken the ‘e’ off."
Maxinquaye = the lost Motherland. And Tricky, he grew up an Exile on Main Street. On Knowle West High Street, Bristol, to be precise.
"Raised in this place/Now concrete is my religion " – ‘Feed Me’
"What that's saying is, my religion was Knowle West. You grow up in a certain place and you grow to be like the environment. I knew how to pinch, how to get along in that environment."
Tricky talks about how "we all have this animal hunger. It's quite a strong force; if we were cleaner of mind or body, this energy might be good." In the concrete jungle, the natural impulses of the young mind toward prestige and belonging get twisted out of shape, distorted into badmuthaf***'a-hood and gang loyalty. Sly Stone wrote Riot songs like ‘Thank You For Talking To Me, Africa’ and ‘Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle)’ because "in Africa, animals are animals. The tiger is a tiger, the snake is a snake, you know what the hell he's going to do. Here in New York, a tiger or a snake may come up looking like, uuuh, you."
When Tricky talks about being stoned and paranoid in supermarkets – "I feel alien, and like someone's going to recognise me in a minute as an alien" – I wonder if that's how he feels all the time, deep down. Has he ever felt like he belonged anywhere?
"Well, there's nowhere I want to live. I've travelled everywhere. I find some place where I think I want to live and after two weeks I find out it's not. So I haven't got a home and that's something I'm desperately looking for. And I think I'm never going to find it."
It's Tricky's ‘primal narcissistic wound’ – the loss of his mother – that makes him morbidly sensitive to the currents of anguish and dread in the culture. Like that other mamma's boy, Kurt Cobain, he seems to have no defences, no skin. And being an aerial-for-angst is taxing.
"It takes up a lot of energy, it ends up sapping me sometimes. I do soak it all up. I was in Paris doing a photo session with Massive and there was this old lady, and she looked very old and very sad. Now, that catches my eye, and it really, really hurts me. I don't like feeling like that. But it's something I can't control. It hurts me to such an extent that it confuses me. See, if some geezer comes up to me on the street and starts asking me for money, I get an instant rage. When someone comes up to me and I see this person ain't got a life, my emotions get confused. No one likes seeing that, cos that could be you or me. It's too scary. It's like a mirror, almost."
When people go on about how ‘sexy’ Maxinquaye is, I sometimes wonder if their ears ever penetrate through the sensuous sonic murk and Martina's shortcake-crumbling-in-mouth voice to the desperation and dread-of-intimacy in the lyrics. As a seduction soundtrack, ‘Overcome’ and ‘Suffocated Love’ ain't exactly amorous or arousing. Tricky is highly bemused when people tell him that his album's an aphrodisiac.
"I get beautiful girls in Italy come up to me and say, ‘I have sex with my boyfriend to your album'. I really don't need to know that. I say, 'Why don’t you have sex with me listening to my album?’ "
Maybe what the Maxinquaye-as-sampladelic-Let's Get It On posse are cueing off is the voracious oral craving in the songs: from the line "F*** you in/Suck you in/Tuck you in" from ‘Abba On’ to ‘Ponderosa’s litany of implosive violence (inflicted via alcohol and spliff) against the self ("See the scars of my rage"). That song documents the same abyss of despair – down and down through "different levels of the Devil's company" – that birthed ‘Strugglin’’, the albums' most gruelling feat of avant-gardism. Sonically, ‘Strugglin’’ sounds like a faithless Public Enemy; PE if they somehow lost grip on the "black steel" of their ideology, foundered, hit rock bottom.
"Heheheheheh! "wheezes Tricky. "I dunno quite how to take that! That track, it is the last resort. It's based on real depression, but not through something terrible happening to you, which is what most people think causes depression. It's easy to get a depression, if you don't have a job, don't have a passion, don’t exercise your brain. After doing 'Blue Lines', I was getting a wage into a bank but not actually working. Massive were paying me, so I had money, and that was the worst thing, cos it enabled me to have weed and drink. All I did was smoke and drink, hang around in town, kill time in bars. And go to clubs, from Wednesday to Sunday."
This two-year, endless weekender-bender nearly drove Tricky round the bend. After the party, utterly wasted, he'd contemplate the waste of his life, until, in his weed-distorted paranoia, all that killed time would assume the grotesque shape of a spectre, a nameless apprehension of doom: "Mystical shadows fraught with no meaning". Out of this wasteland eventually emerged a prophet, a sonic wizard conjuring up the paranoiascapes of ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Abbaon Fat Tracks’, aural allegories of a generation's dereliction; music that makes cultural entropy seem as picturesque as the photos of corroded, rust-mottled metal and flaking paint inside the CD booklet of Maxinquaye.
Along with everything else, Tricky's album is an inventory of the cost of this country's recreational drug ‘culture’; of the venomous blooms that sprout when a whole generation, finding no political outlet for its idealism, turns to self-medication/self-poisoning to provide its provisional utopias, each and every weekend. Where a lot of groups glamourise drugs, Tricky raps lines – "I roll the blue bills/I snort the cheap thrills", "Brain washed by the cheapest" – which seem to attest to a healthy quotient of shame.
"Cocaine is the cheapest thrill I've ever experienced in my life, the lowest, lowest thing. Cos it's totally unreal. You feel so good about yourself, but you've done nothing to deserve it. The times I've taken it is with other artists, and you stand there and say loads of bullshit, how you respect them, love their lyrics, and you pat each other on the back all f***ing night. E is just as bad: I like loads of nice things being said to me, and you say loads of nice things back, and you get all deep. Some things ain't worth talking about."
For the jilted generation, all that festering rage is vented through going mad at the weekend; all that blocked idealism is expressed through chemicals. Short-term measures. As Irvine Welsh's A Smart C***, paralysed by the seeming futility of political activism, puts it: "I think I'll stick to drugs to get me through the long, dark night of late capitalism."
"We're all f***ing lost," says Tricky. "Heheheheh. I can't pretend I've got all the answers. Bob Marley, he could write songs about freedom and love. I'm just telling the truth that I'm confused, I'm paranoid, I'm scared, I'm vicious, I'm f***ing spiteful."
And yet the album's last song, the unspeakably beautiful ‘Feed Me’, seems to hold out a cruel glimmer of hope, a dream of the promised land (Maxinquaye itself?)...
'"We found a new place to live/Where we're taught to grow strong/Strongly sensitive'," Tricky quotes himself. "It's not the sort of stuff I write about usually... it's really hopeful!"
But tentative, almost taunting – like a mirage.
"Unreal, yeah."

Juxtapose (Island) 
Uncut, 1999

For those of us who revere Maxinquaye as this decade's greatest album, Tricky's 

trajectory thereafter has been perplexing. For all its creator's 
denizen-of-the-darkside shtick and compulsive experimentalism, Maxinquaye worked 
as a twisted pop record; it was full of haunting melodies, lovely textures, and 
lyric after lyric that lodged itself in your head. With Nearly God and 
Pre-Millenium Tension, though, Tricky embarked upon on a wilfully erratic 
anti-pop course, increasingly shunning hooks and rapping with a slack, offhand 
bleariness. Last year's Angels With Dirty Faces was acclaimed in routine, 
knee-jerk fashion, but was really only notable for its uncharacteristically 
frantic tempos and the utter failure of any song to leave an imprint in the 

Tricky has done some of his finest work in collaboration: Maxinquaye's 

"Aftermath" and "Ponderosa" were co-produced by ex-Pop Group frontman Mark 
Stewart and Howie B respectively, there was the brilliant Hell EP with Gothic 
rappers The Gravediggaz, and Tricky co-wrote/co-produced two of the best songs 
on Bjork's Post, "Enjoy" and "Headphones". So the collaborative nature of 
Juxtapose seems encouraging. But if the involvement of hip hop producers DJ 
Muggs and Grease suggests an attempt by Tricky to connect with an American rap 
audience that's so far eluded him, think again. Very little here connects with 
current hip hop, and nothing resembles Muggs's work with Cypress Hill (who've 
long parted company with rap's state-of-the-art anyway). It doesn't even sound 
like the trio are using sampling much on Juxtapose; instead, the music seems 
like a hybrid of live, rather rudimentary playing with rhythms programmed on 
archaic drum machines. 

Dry, brittle, and deliberately underproduced, Juxtapose is a world away from 

Maxinquaye's lush, sensuous murk. "For Real", the opener, sounds like slightly 
shaky New Wave--a very early demo by The Cure, say. "Bom Bom Diggy" is a sketch 
of a groove overlaid with sprinkles of acoustic guitar. "I Like The Girls" has 
the cheap peppy energy of Eighties action movie soundtrack themes. All angular 
stab-riffs and Mantronix-style edit-slashes, "Hot Like a Sauna" similarly sounds 
like a Hong Kong movie knock-off of Eighties hip hop, although it may actually 
be a nod to the contemporary electro-influenced subgenre of rap called New 
Orleans bounce. An alternate version of "Hot" adds bad metal riffs, a 
thin-sounding guest-rapper, and a wailing diva, to end up like something Rhythm 
King would have put out in 1987--Brit-rap pioneers 3 Wize Men, say. 

On Juxtapose Tricky takes his blurry enunciation to new levels of 

indistinctness--consonants are crumbly or smudged, vowels hoarse and muddy. 
Generally, his voice is buried in the thick of the instrumentation; 
occasionally, it's shoved high in the mix but doubletracked slightly 
out-of-synch to ensure illegibility. On "Contradictive," the odd striking phrase 
leaps out of his parched, bronchial flow--the stoner philosophising of "time 
isn't real" rubs up against the video fiend's fave Godfather quote "Luco Brazzia 
sleeps with the fishes." The trick is to stop squinting your ears to decipher 
his stream-of-consciousness (which isn't pulling off the random resonance trick 
often enough these days), and just enjoy Tricky's voice as a sculpted smear, a 
braid of grain and gristle. 

Glints of pure sonic delight are scattered throughout Juxtaposed: the mesmering 

loop of sampled croon in "Contradictive", the ultra-fast simmer of Last Poets 
percussion in "She Said," the Smiley Culture-esque ragga-Cockney speed-jabber of 
the guest MC on "I Like The Girls". But unlike Tricky's best work, they rarely 
build off each other to become the proverbial bigger-than-the-sum. Ultimately, 
Juxtapose too frequently crosses the thin line between improvisation and messing 
about, throwdown and throwaway.