Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 14)”Let me take you down the corridors of my life.”
Is darkness inherently depressing? That certainly tends to be the default mode for most music. If someone recommends an album to me as "Totally dark man" I think it's perfectly reasonable for me to assume it’s going to be a great big bummer. But does it have to be? Darkness is indicative of a lot of other things too - sensuality, curiosity, mystery, adventure - but the one to one for most music is "dark" equals "depressing".
Perhaps what makes Maxinquaye
the definitive trip hop album, even more so than the scene defining Blue Lines
or its popular peak Dummy
, is that it is bereft of any depression whatsoever, yet pitch black in atmosphere and mood. Granted, it certainly sounds depressing the first time you hear it and I’m sure many would rush to disagree with me but to label this album depressing is doing it a disservice. It superficially bears the same hallmarks as any other trip-hop record - dubby, dense samples, an overcast atmosphere, an emphasis on feeling and sensuality rather than the typical hip hop hallmarks of lyricism and mood - but what it does differently, and what makes it so phenomenal, is be enigmatically
dark instead of crushingly dark.
Tricky was born Adrian Thaws in 1964. Like so many of his peers, he grew up in Bristol. His father, who left before Adrian was born, operated the Studio 16 sound system. His mother was a poet who committed suicide when Adrian was only 4 years old. Tricky believes the cause of her suicide was epilepsy and would later come to believe she was speaking through him. Her name was Maxine Quaye.
Adrian grew up with his grandmother and first appeared on the scene when he started hanging out with a crew called The Wild Bunch who morphed into Massive Attack. His appearances on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines
are essential to those records but Tricky, then known as Tricky Kid, always felt just outside of the group. He became hungry to pursue his own muse.
As the legend goes, Tricky met his muse sitting on a wall in Bristol. Martina Topley Bird was only 15 years old when she first met Tricky, who stepped to her one day looking for smokes while she was skipping school. Martina was a smart kid who had lived in America for a while with a mother that worked in the music business. Her favorite bands were Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. While Tricky and Martina chatted, she mentioned that she sang jazz and Tricky invited her to producer Mark Stewart’s house to try singing. She laid down vocals over a track called “Aftermath” and was brought on board.
The recording of Maxinquaye
is essential to its brilliance. Perhaps most importantly, all vocals were first take only. This allows the songs to retain that take sense of discovery; the way Martina flubs the rhythm of a line or Tricky’s asthmatic rasp trips over the beat put you right in the studio, handing a joint off to Tricky right before he goes back into the booth. Meanwhile, producer Mark Stewart got a load of different samples dumped on his lap and was told to make it work. “It was the most bizarre record I’ve ever worked on,” says Mark, “It was a complete un-learning experience and it was also a total re-learning experience. Think of how to make a record, then forget everything you've learned and start completely backwards and upside down.” Luckily, Mark proved more than game as he pitch shifted and edited every sample until they fit. Tricky was clever too, he knew when to add elements and when to simply let things lie. That drum loop on “Ponderosa” hits like a ball pin hammer to the teeth, it runs through the whole of the song relatively untouched. Only a few elements complement the sample without ever taking the focus from it.
The stellar "Overcome" wastes absolutely no time taking you through the looking glass and never looking back. A few tom rolls and rim ticks rumble through, a distant and eerie keyboard patch floats around the mix without ever settling in it, and two samples of breathing, a rapid inhale/exhale, complete the whole concoction. Then something that sounds like a Japanese Shakuhachi run through a filter makes a few passes. The effect is dazzling; first time I heard it I was sold on the whole album before Martina even opened her mouth.
And then she does.
Alluring with a charm beyond her years, Martina’s voice is a thing of wonder. It’s light and airy but capable of wringing so much feeling out of a word or two. “Karmacoma,” she intones beautifully over a chiming music box, “Jamacian a’roma.”
The album’s modus operandi is to leave the listener without firm ground to stand on. It constantly gives familiar points to lean on but everything just feels off. “Overcome” and “Hell is Around the Corner” use lyrics from Massive Attack’s Protection
, the latter song uses the same sample as Portishead’s “Glory Box”. A singer that sounds like Martina is used on “Pumpkin” but not quite her (Its actually Alison Goldfrapp). And is that a little bit of Michael Jackon’s “Bad” I hear somewhere in “Brand New You’re Retro”? As soon as things seem to be coming into focus, a bizarre new sample or Tricky himself comes out of nowhere to throw you off balance again. Nowhere are things stranger than on the psycho velvet cover of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” that grabs only one verse of that song and sings it over and over again while Tricky goes for full thrash rock in the background.
Tricky approaches his vocals to these tracks with a sense of playfulness and excitement. On “Suffocated Love”, a song about abuse and sexual violence, he sounds on the verge of giggling through most of it. “Can I take off your clothes/Before we go out/And when you’re helpless/I’ll scream and shout,” michiviously grinning his way through the last bar.
”They labeled me insane.”
Public Enemy may be the biggest influence here. Maxinquaye
’s bewildering array of beguiling samples suggest The Bomb Squad off of two spliffs and a Quaalude. Herein lies why the album never becomes depressing. Tricky isn’t interested in bumming anyone out, he just loves sound
. He loves his vast library of weird samples and fascinating sounds. He loves hearing them together in ways that reveal new shades and colors that were previously absent. "When you sample anything, it's second generation," says Tricky. "It "helps you get an atmosphere. People say you've got to take the noise off a tune, or that you can't master from a cassette. Nah, that's bollocks." Even the albums dourest song, "Struggling" is more fascinated with its vast ocean of samples. A ticking stopwatch, creaking floorboards, and the sound of the slide on a pistol loaded. Lyrically it’s a bit of a downer, but Tricky is just grinning his way through the whole thing even as the words seem to barely make it past his lips. “Roll with the bullets to survive to survive to survive,” he cackles, “Self preservation.” Tricky may be cocking that gun but he's only using it to hit the buttons on his sampler.
”I was raised in this place/Now concrete is my religion”
It's on the albums final, and best, track that tricky really pulls the rug out from under you. On “Feed Me”, Martina's voice, that clear beacon of light through the smoke, floats and lifts through a jungle of clumping drums, ringing vibraphone and Tricky’s voice growling somewhere in the background. Both artists’ performances are nothing short of commanding. “From cradle to grave, the simple diary of man” shrugs Tricky. We found a new place to live where we're taught to grow strong/And strongly sensitive, it always sets the scenery,” croons Martina sweetly, “Colors leave only beauty, words and wine amongst the greenery/See how it is.” With no warming and an evil smile, Tricky takes Martina’s voice, possibly the only clear thing Maxinquaye
gives you to really hold on to, and twists it into something hideous and frightening for a few bars before letting the song carry on like normal. Hang on tight.