THERE'S NOTHING OUT THERE
If, back in 1995, one of us made a mixtape of British music and sent it back a decade, the recipient in 1985 would have been shocked, surprised and baffled at much of what they heard. Jungle, for example, was quite unforeseeable in the mid-80s, however many of its component parts were in place, and an album like Maxinquaye would have sounded, if not completely alien, then certainly unfathomable. Guitar music, so fertile a source of pop culture 15 years earlier, had begun its terminal decline (though anti-retroists Pulp, PJ Harvey and Black Grape were flying high in the charts), but there was much of interest and novelty to be heard in 1995.
The situation in 2008 is rather different. What contemporary music might have taken the late 90s listener aback? A friend of mine suggested glitch and microhouse, but (a) they are hardly new genres, (b) their sound is only a variation on previous genres of techno and ambient and (c) Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos and Isolee ain’t household names, not even in this household. Guitar music is in an unsalvageable rut – soporific, solipsistic, and utterly disengaged with the world around it – so that indie and AOR have become interchangeable terms. Dubstep is admittedly of its time – depressive, yearning, phobic, womblike – but its most obvious inspiration is Tricky himself.
The world that receives Knowle West Boy is different, therefore, to that which first heard Maxinquaye – different in that it is very much the same. Nothing has changed in the last decade; the world has not moved on. Contrary to claims that Britain climbed out from its furrow of conservatism when New Labour came to power in 1997 and strode into the twentieth century with its head held high, the country is now politically, attitudinally and aesthetically more conformist than at any time in living memory. Prejudices, especially around race and class, are nearer the surface now than they were in 1995. There is a lot more injustice to be angry about, and a lot fewer people who seem to be angry about it. As Tricky says in his interview with the Wire this month, “What have kids got to do except hang out? No youth clubs; kids hanging out on the streets are called ASBOs. I’ve seen a judge put a pregnant woman with two kids in prison; she was in court before me, she couldn’t pay her fine, he still put her in jail. He doesn’t get it, what it’s like to struggle.” Class politics may be off everybody else’s radar, but it’s back on the agenda for Tricky.
Maxinquaye is like most albums by brilliant, eccentric and popular black artists – cherished by those who remember it, forgotten by most, usurped in the popular mindset by the lumpen white dadrock so cherished by the middlebrow rock press. It was voted the best album of the year by Face, the Wire and the NME; the second best by Iguana, Rock de Lux, Spin, the Village Voice and Melody Maker; and the third best by OOR, Select and Rolling Stone. When Q magazine did their infamous Greatest Albums Ever list three years later, Maxinquaye was at number 95, one place below Cast’s All Change and 87 places below What’s the Story Morning Glory. In more recent polls, it hasn’t featured at all. As Carl at the Impostume wrote a while back, “He’s completely mainstream, or would be if it weren’t for the Britpop counterrevolution. In an alternate and much more interesting Universe he’s headlining Glastonbury instead of Jay-Z and Liam Gallagher is still roadying for the Inspiral Carpets.”
Tricky fans typically make one of two claims: that while every elpee since Maxinquaye has been written off by the critics (not, actually, quite true), that album is actually only one of several Tricky masterpieces; or that every Tricky album is brilliant except the last one. Here’s my claim: Maxinquaye is by far his best album. Pre-millennial Tension, Angels with Dirty Faces and Blowback are interesting (the singles off the first two are terrific), but they don’t come close to Maxinquaye. And his last one, Vulnerable, is pretty poor.
Portishead have already come back this year with an album that saw them turn into This Heat. It’s a decent enough record, but the transformation didn’t quite work because Beth Gibbons’s rather contrived emoting felt passé. Conversely, in maintaining the oblique strategies that have seen him become a marginal figure, Tricky has made an album that sounds more contemporary than anything else I’ve heard this year.
“Puppy Toy” is horrible – the sound of shit-faced shame, as Tricky the romantic gets kicked back by a girl at the bar, the nauseating sounds of a fruit machine ringing in his ear. “Bacative” views the same kind of night with a stung resignation – all shuffling rhythms, pizzicato strings, pedal steels, the jaded voice of Rodigan blankly recalling a night of violence in the casino, the inaudible croak of Tricky choking and echoing into nothing, an untouchable girl’s voice chanting “There’s no exit, I can’t stand still, keep on running.”
Jesus features throughout – as reluctant martyr, star-crossed dreamer, avenger, the prophet who has absented himself from the world – but the superstar of Knowle West Boy is the Knowle West boy himself. Using the same vibrato chords that opened Portishead’s “Roads”, a grazed guitar and pounding bassline lead “Council Estate” into an ecstatic portrayal of the vicious circle of life of a kid born into an estate.
In my mother's belly and I'm starting to kick
Nine months in the womb and I'm making her sick
Squeeze through the womb and I land in the room
Don't know who we are, can't really tell
We do the council flats and we do some jail
We don't like school, in a week we go once
Don't like the police, 'cos they kick and they punch
God bless what a stress and the stress comes at once
But remember, boy, you're a superstar
There won’t be a more vivid illustration of British society than that to hit the top 40 all year. Alas, it failed to dent the top 75. And Knowle West Boy is so culturally out of kilter with what’s going on in British music in 2008, it is unlikely to exceed its initial album chart placing of number 63. But never mind that he is 25 years older than his intended audience, his return and his egress from the disquieting Americana that began to surface on Blowback are cause for celebration. As he concludes his Wire interview,
It’s a good time for musicians. If you do yourself and be true to yourself you are going to stick out like a sore thumb, and you’ve got everything to gain because there is nothing out there.
"Overcome" from Maxinquaye
"Council Estate" from Knowle West Boy