When the Tingle Becomes a Chill

"Okay Tricky baby. Gimme postapocalyptic. C'mon, pout for me baby. Pout! Beautiful.": U.K. hip hop's prophet of gloom returns with Angels With Dirty Faces.

Post-structuralist pissant DJ Spooky snidely calls Tricky the "Asthmatic Weasel," but if the Spooky one ever said it to his face, the Trickster would have no problem introducing his size 12 to That Subliminal Kid's faux Foucaultian cookie puss. Tricky's well aware of the comic side of his voodoo-cyborg persona; his Boba Fett-meets-Tom Waits rasp is both disgusting and alluring, wavering between sinister, sexy, and silly. Yet it somehow ends up seeming endearing. Part of the fun of deciphering his latest collection of blatherskite mumbles, Angels With Dirty Faces, is hearing him mix lunacy with insight and confuse boasting with self-deprecation.

The silky, cursive raps Tricky authored for the Bristol, U.K., trip-hop collective Massive Attack were exuberantly naive and, as he put it on "Daydreaming," from their 1991 debut Blue Lines, "very down to earth." But after jettisoning the suffix "Kid" from his name, Tricky became the subject of all Tricky songs. Take his new album's somber single "Broken Homes." Over a limping, oompah beat, a seraphim choir introduces the refrain, a solemn chant about domestic violence: "Those men will break your bones/Don't know how to build stable homes." Just after Polly Jean Harvey's delicate, mournful voice enters the mix, yearning for change, Tricky's first slurred syllables turn his perspective from third person to first. "We lose our voice more each year," Tricky huffs, royally, along with Harvey. But as his chanteuse gets distressed--musing, "Is it cancer in the throat?"--Tricky pants a phlegmatic "No, stress."

While other frog-throated crooners like Waits (or Cobain or Armstrong) used their rasps to convey the wisdom that comes with suffering--as if mutilated vocal cords were the aftermath of a broken heart--Tricky's asthmatic pant is a legitimate condition. And he's got the inhaler to prove it. Tricky knows that his affliction is the source of his charm, so he evokes an aura of urgency, as if always on the brink of suffocation.

Angels puts a strange twist on Tricky's seductive devil persona; he's now as huggable as he is hateable. While he's downright blasphemous on "You," expressing a Cobain copycat death wish ("I wanna blow my head off in Seattle"), he's a righteous role model on "6 Minutes" ("I think it's my duty to say I don't like guns"). And "You" takes his mongrel mama's-boy sentimentality (his debut, Maxinquaye, is named after his mother, who died of an overdose) to a disconcerting extreme. "I want my mum," he moans with an orgasmic shudder. Even when he's trying to be a sweetie, Tricky can't stop being creepy.

Angels also distances Tricky from the trip-hop sound he's credited with helping to design. While the rhythmic current of his first two records often meanders and trickles, Angels is propulsive, fueled by manic, Bonhamesque rhythms. Martina Topley-Bird, the voice behind Tricky's most touching moments, gets pushed into the background as Tricky contends with clattering cymbals and growling guitars. Tricky's favorite, admittedly hackneyed metaphor is nudity as soul baring ("Tricky Kid," from 1996's Pre-Millennium Tension, paints fame as everybody's fantasy striptease), but now he's ingrained his fetish into his record's grooves: Most of Angels is sparse and melodically nude. Songs develop like fractals, turning in on themselves as they unfold. On "6 Minutes," a two-note bass line collapses into a monotonous pulse as stuttering scratching melds with the squeals of Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian.

It's unfortunate that Tricky's work with Ian made the cut, especially because his collaboration with dub-wise soulster Finley Quaye got yanked at the last minute; what's missed most sorely on Angels is the slinky, red-eyed soul that made Pre-Millennium Tension so ominously seductive.

But it's hard to have soul when you're not turned on, and it's even harder to be turned on when you're petrified. And on Angels, Tricky is neither soulful nor stimulated. This feeling betrays what made Maxinquaye and Pre-Millennium Tension so compelling. Both albums succeeded in linking relationships with an urgent sense of apocalypse, casting love as toxic and as what'll help us survive--the crisis provoking chaotic enlightenment. But on Angels, Tricky follows his ego's urges, and ends up brooding himself into believing that he's got nothing to learn.

But this was Tricky's problem all along: He never could figure out the humanist implications of his old band Massive Attack's anarchic collectivism. After leaving the group, Tricky repeatedly harangued his former mates, claiming that the group stifled his input. This critique only shows how much Tricky's ego inhibited his understanding of his former group's musical politics: Massive Attack doesn't tolerate mic hogs.

With their first album, Blue Lines, Massive Attack defined themselves as a stylistically scatterbrained crew, united by the mission of dissolving genre distinctions in oblong grooves. Blue Lines infuses dub's bleary beats with a soulful shot of deep funk and hip-hop bounce. Culling its idealism liberally from hippies, Rastafarians, and '70s soulsters, Massive Attack mixed in doses of potent attitude, equally inspired by Isaac Hayes, Johnny Rotten, and Rakim. Tricky was Massive's resident jester--just one amusing character amid a dazzling, protean cast.

Massive Attack songs fall into one of three categories: There's the group rap sessions, dominated by the mumbling ping-pong between Tricky and the glib, goofy, and less cogent 3D, with terse interruptions by the shadowy Daddy G's rumbling patois. Then there's the psychedelic reggae rave-ups fronted by reggae vet Horace Andy with his inimitably shuddering vocals. The third model, though, is what still sells records: slinky slo-mo diva dirges. Both Blue Lines and Protection open with chill-inducing performances by gutsy women with hefty, soulful voices who flip chivalry on its head and reclaim it for women. Shara Nelson seeps with soul on Blue Lines' "Safe From Harm," while Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn percolates with passion on "Protection."

Mezzanine, the Massives' latest, follows the same blueprint while attempting to scale down the superstructure. The disappearance of the group's merry idealism is immediately apparent in Mezzanine's unnerving claustrophobia, a mood perhaps inspired by the publicized fact that main Massives 3D, Mushroom, and Daddy G can barely stand each other these days. The music bears the marks of creation in cramped isolation; tracks get suffocated in their dense textures and crowded beats. Amid surfeits of sound, the Massives back themselves into their own separate corners, start building walls, and end up sealing themselves in their own tiny tombs. Dub and funk get lost in favor of sludgy, plodding grooves, while 3D and Daddy G get confrontational and paranoid.

Even the usually droll dub-reggae legend Horace Andy sounds menacing: Over the roaring guitars of the conflagrationlike "Angel," he turns an assertion of love into a rapid-fire threat against an apocalyptic angel who "comes from way above" to "neutralize every man on sight." While Tricky still traffics in pre-apocalyptic brooding, Mezzanine explores the onslaught and the aftermath, concerned more with the practical problem of staying alive than with fretting about the future or pledging allegiance to love.

Throughout Mezzanine, former Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser's feathery vocals float above the torrents of sound. Her weak delivery wilts the otherwise gorgeous "Teardrop," as Frazer struggles with limp lines such as "love is a fair" (which could be "love isn't fair"--I can't tell). When her quivering, inscrutable vocals come up for a breather, she evokes clichéd images of the bleakness and futility of love: black flowers blossom and a tiny tear falls into a raging fire, as Frazer tries to decide if she's melancholy, lonely, or just plain bored.

Mezzanine marks Massive Attack's realization that they're better paranoids than utopians; newly convinced that love won't outlive the apocalypse, they're focused on survival. Mezzanine forces the listener to fight along with them; the threatening sounds feel like walls pushing in at you from all sides. One way out is to see these sonic tombs as cocoons--a place to hide, safe from harm, during the danger. The first time the Burt Bacharach derivative "Exchange" appears, with its bright beats and breezy flourishes, it feels like a mirage. Its reappearance at album's close--uplifted by Andy's glowing vocals--becomes the gorgeous sunrise at the end of Mezzanine's nuclear winter.

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