Review Summary: The musical equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, in the best way possible.
In 1995, Tricky "Adrian" Thaws created a creaking, disturbing, yet intoxicating trip-hop classic; the closest musical equivalent to what I would imagined Stockholm syndrome to be like. It will batter you, but you will find yourself inexplicably drawn to its sinister charm over time.
For those who are uninitiated, enter the bizarre yet compelling world of trip-hop. Originating in the early 90s in Bristol, England; this genre melded live instrumentation with hip-hop style beats and sampling and infused it with varying elements of dub, electronic, and psychedelic music (just to name a few). This unique combination was generally used to create a hazy, atmospheric, down-tempo sound, (though there are multiple exceptions, including some instances on this particular record.) This may not be the greatest trip-hop album ever recorded, but it's certainly a much different beast than the works of Massive Attack, Portishead, and DJ Shadow.
Having had a heavy presence in the recording of the first two albums by trip-hop progenitors Massive Attack, (both spectacular albums in their own right); Tricky proceeded to craft a debut record more grimy, claustrophobic, and unsettling than what had come before. This is a very dark record, at times paranoid and overwhelmed, and at other times wry and sinister.
Of course, the word “dark” is thrown around a lot to describe any number of works, but this is darkness of a different variety. Backed by murky production, much of this record feels like it’s trapped inside of someone’s basement; one that is barely lit by a single tinted window, and you can practically hear the slow dripping of water from the moldy ceiling. Its characters don’t truly live, but rather linger on from day to day like mindless phantoms, stuck in that cold and filthy cell of a basement with no foreseeable means of escape. The lack of sunlight causes each day to run into the next to form one perpetual state of dusk; a portrait of how one’s disconnection from the outside world has created a personal hell on earth. They sustain themselves in a never-ending haze of drug smoke, and the unfeeling sex that occurs under its influence; acting hedonistic-ally in hopes that these thrills will provide some glimmer of joy in their lives. Yet the sex always feels empty and numb, with the partners too sedated from constant drug exposure to ever feel a single sensation, whether pleasure or pain. Both partners might as well be strangers, as whatever emotions might have existed between them withered a long time ago, leaving every interaction wordless and mindlessly instinctive.
One might consider such a dreary album to be off-putting and needlessly difficult, and it’s admittedly not for everyone. Yet the songs are so gritty and atmospheric that you can practically live inside of them, and the bleak and twisted outlook becomes inexplicably alluring, even seductive, over time. This provides a sort of musical Stockholm syndrome wherein the viewer is simultaneously disturbed yet entranced, gradually becoming more submissive to the album’s sinister worldview. This sort of analogy may seem in poor taste, but I find it the most accurate way to describe this album.
The album is headed by two main vocalists, one being Tricky himself. His delivery style is distinctive, as his lines are usually mumbled rather than conventionally rapped, sounding so overwhelmed by his own paranoia and vices that he has fallen into gleeful insanity. The other main vocalist is Martina Topley-Bird, Tricky’s then-girlfriend, who provides the trademark trance-like female vocals characteristic of trip-hop, but with an afro-accented flavor. On songs where they are both featured, such as the clattering “Ponderosa” and vulgar yet sensual “Abbaon Fat Track”, Topley-Bird often takes the leading role while Tricky mutters lines intermittently, as if whispering suggestions in her ear that she carries out obediently.
Stylistically, the album has a lot of variety. Jungle beats pulse through “Overcome” and “Black Steel”, the latter being a cover (and complete reinvention) of a Public Enemy song. A breadth of artists are sampled, from Smashing Pumpkins on the lurking build-and-release of “Pumpkin” (which also features delicate vocals from Allison Goldfrapp), to Michael Jackson on the searing “Brand New You’re Retro”. A combination of horror movie keys and an exotic flute give “Aftermath” both an unsettling edge and an herbal antidote. “You Don’t” brings soul with an appearance from Ragga, and “Strugglin’” samples the cocking of a gun along with the dripping of water to insinuate a deteriorating mental state. Ultimately though, this album is too wildly inventive to be described accurately, and instead must simply be heard.
Perhaps the primary appeal of “Maxinquaye” is how disturbingly human it is. Tricky might sneer like a manipulative demon, but he never comes off as the devil himself so much as he does the personification of our own darkness. His frayed psyche flaunts off the flawed aspects of our own, fueled by insecurities and relishing a perverse id. “Let me take you down the corridors of my life”, Tricky rasps on “Hell is Around the Corner”. The hallways of “Maxinquaye” are never easy to navigate, but they are always fascinating enough to journey back to, no matter how tightly the knot in your stomach gets tightened along the way.
Recommended Tracks: "Overcome", "Black Steel", "Aftermath"