But where EBTG's music is ultimately willing to head out to the dancehall and make the best of things in spite of its sorrows, the music on Nearly God is deeply claustrophobic, redolent of the sort of mounting paranoia that I recall from weekends of round-the-clock pot smoking back in the day. What Tricky's up to is anyone's guess--though there are some clues here, and the sound of someone hitting on a spliff that opens the record is just one of them. The opening cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees' obscure "Tattoo" is one of the most sonically off-putting lead tracks I've heard on a pop record since Trout Mask Replica's "Frownland," though in a different way. Here, dissonant swarms of strings (George Crumb maybe?) circle around a few bass notes suggesting melody, with erratically plodding beats and a sour, mocking horn riff dropped in at intervals. "When you're sitting all alone/In the middle of the floor," Tricky mumbles almost incomprehensibly, "There's something you can't control/you sit there watching the door."
Yeah, it's a song about a dysfunctional relationship, about love and intimacy as nightmares of disempowerment. But things get muddier on the next track, "Poems," which features vocals by regular Tricky sidekick Martine (here Martina Topley Bird) and Terry Hall (who sounds so startlingly good you wonder what else he's been up to lately). As near as I can tell, it's a song about a lover's betrayal on one hand, and artistic vampirism on the other (the latter being something that Tricky--who after his first record was suddenly fielding calls from worldwide superstars and record company honchos wanting his production talents--no doubt understands). As he slurs on his verse: "I can vibe to anything/So I have to hide from everything/Everybody wants a piece of me." I don't think anyone else could make this sort of sentiment stick--Jeez, y'know, life is tough all over--but with its scary, stumbling beats and a delicate little acoustic guitar line that slithers through the song's dark scrim like a golden thread of hope, "Poems" makes its emotional point indelible.
There are some upbeat moments on the record, but fewer than Tricky's debut Maxinquaye. Here they come from strong women vocalists like Neneh Cherry and Alison Moyet--the latter who belts out soul-mama verses about personal transformation on "Make a Change." Indeed, there's a strange, self-helpy vibe lurking around the edges of some songs on Nearly God. On "I Be The Prophet," Tricky and Martine take turns singing "I need to meditate." On "Yoga," Tricky recites "a tisket a tasket/I'm feeling fantastic" over and over like a mantra, while Björk (who, incidentally, can sound a lot like a young Ella Fitzgerald at times) simultaneously croons "Don't fuck with me/ don't hold me down/ I'm jumpy."
These bursts of positive energy and will power don't add up to much, but they give the record its peculiar tension. If looping and repetition in music can, in a spiritual sense, represent the sound of the sweet eternal, Tricky understands it can also represent, in a literal sense, the sound of stasis and death. Nearly God is full of songs that can't break out of their own stupor, just as their characters remain stuck in bad relationships and other habits. You keep listening, wanting these strange tunes to resolve themselves--find a major chord, break out of their dissonance and arrhythmia. But they never do. And that is what makes them so haunting.