Tricky didn’t need to make another Pre-Millennium Tension. After a couple of albums that most critics liked less than we did, the first impression of his newest album False Idols sounded like a very pronounced nod back to Massive Attack and 1996, right down to the revisitation of Makes Me Wanna Die lyrics on Nothing’s Changed: Change my stride / Follow where Mary goes / Cherish the things she knows / Says if I change my stride, then I’ll fly…
The recycling didn’t take away from the sexy power of the new track. But combined with the silky, isolated, repetitive bassline of Does It, anticipation of False Idols became a question of whether he was running back to his comfort zone for an easy win, or if he’d manage to surprise us with another brave new world of sound, like those he brought to the table with 2003’s Vulnerable and 2008’s Knowle West Boy. I for one felt like an odd man out, as I saw generally positive reaction to the return of “old school” Tricky, while quietly worrying that he might not be doing what he does best, which is challenging all expectation, and stretching the boundaries of any genre you dare try to place him into.
I should have had more faith.
Francesca Belmonte’s familiar and sultry whisper sets the stage in the simple opening statement of Somebody’s Sins, a twisted cover of Patti Smith’s reworking of the Them song Gloria, originally penned by Van Morrison. Intact is Smith’s opening twist: Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine… This delicious blasphemy snakes around a light, muted beat, and a single-finger synth riff. It makes you wonder which idols are the false ones, but it’s just an introduction to what proves to be some of Tricky’s strongest musical work to date.
In Nothing Matters, we are introduced to the force of nature known as Nneka Egbuna. Like Tricky himself, this Nigerian / German Hip Hop / Soul singer defies categorization. Inspired by this appearance, I discovered some amazing solo recordings, and ultimately her 2012 album Soul Is Heavy, which is definitely worth a listen. Nothing Matters might only scratch the surface of what Nneka can do vocally, but it is the first perfect example of the balance Tricky has found on this new album, between his “roots” (for lack of a less worn out word), and his ability to push the envelope further and further. The foundation is essentially classic Trip-Hop, an 808 beat with gated kick, clean piano, and sweeping synth pads. But Nneka is not a sultry whisperer. Her voice soars, passionate, and so rich with human conflict that you’re not even sure if Nothing Matters is a love song or an assassin’s last words to a mark. Of course, it’s probably both.
Valentine is sadly one of the more forgettable tracks on False Idols, stretching a sample of Chet Baker’s version of My Funny Valentine a little thin. It grows on you a little bit after repeat listens, but it pales in comparison to the one-two dragon punch that follows.
Bonnie & Clyde is relatively simple, structurally. A three-note riff from the low strings grooves over a stock dance beat. But then there’s the dressings; a little lead guitar noodle here and there, perfectly placed two-note bass accent. There’s not much to it, but everything necessary to a fiendishly catchy track is there, for Francesca and Tricky to sing over, as cocky and formidable as the song’s tommy gun wielding namesakes.
Parenthesis follows, at once the meanest and weirdest track on False Idols, strangely named as the lead single. It opens with the ethereal voice of The Antlers’ Peter Silberman, sounding hardly human, let alone male, as Tricky faintly whispers in the background. The song’s hook explodes like a hollow-point bullet, almost out of nowhere. It’s a guitar riff that could only come from an artist as unconventional as Tricky. Four loud, lightly distorted and very sour chords that should be dissonant in any combination. And yet have been arranged into the album’s most gratifying riff.
If Only I Knew features Fifi Rong, a newcomer that Tricky has signed to his new label (also called False Idols) along with Francesca. The delicate Asian-British singer, who also leads us on a brief detour on Chinese Interlude, haunts us as the lyrics are bled more than sung: How does it feel like to be so heartless, why are you breaking me for no reason? The apparent helplessness though, is balanced by Tricky’s serpentine bassline and deep synth cello, which adds a brooding tone without burying the singer’s beauty under layers of ornamentation.
Is That Your Life opens with a poppy guitar riff of the same bloodline as Kingston Logic and Excess, and thankfully the track is as inspired as the latter. Francesca’s choruses are a little repetitive, but the verses are delivered in a tight rhythm that the riff threads through like a needle. For its danceability and the angelic voice delivering spitfire lyrics such as easy boy, I’ll cut your throat, smoke that weed, snort the coke, it’s one of the album’s many outstanding tracks.
According to the press releases and even some of Tricky’s own statements, the album is a “return to form” sure to please all that are begging for a reboot of Maxinquaye or PMT. But we’re pleased to report that there’s more to it than that. In fact, at the final tally, it’s only the previously “leaked” tracks Nothing’s Changed and Does It, along with the album closer Passion Of The Christ (which Tricky sings alone on) that could really convince you that you’re back in the 90s. Hopefully that will be enough to fool those that want Tricky to follow his job description, so that we can all agree on the amount of acclaim he deserves.
And for those of you like us, with a sense of adventure, rest assured False Idols is a step forward. Parenthesis will soon prove that, though it’s an odd choice for a single, being more suited to mixtapes and suspenseful movie trailers than the radio. The progress isn’t made by wild left turns into alien or previously non-existent genres, nor layers of crazy new sounds. It comes with a new confidence, a deeper maturity, where less is often more and the natural path is chosen over a potential struggle, for a more stable and satisfying journey.
Photo by Aldo Belmonte
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.