Review: Tricky’s “Knowle West Boy”

Sep 17, 2008 10:55am

  Tricky is always bound to make a unique record.  Since his days with Massive Attack, he has been one of trip-hop’s trail-blazers and he’s never been afraid to experiment. Often the results are rewarding in their own strange way.  He’s recorded his share of classics like “Maxinquaye” (1995) or “Pre-Millennium Tension” (1996) and those albums have stood the test of time.  As with the case with most “experimental” artists, sometimes he misfires, like he did on his last album, “Vulnerable.”
“Knowle West Boy” is Tricky’s first studio album in five years and I’m glad to say it succeeds rather well in providing an intriguing listen.  It’s a harder-edged, exhibiting more of a punk influence in some places.  When it doesn’t rock out, it’s jazzy with some occasional doses of dancehall reggae.  It’s a compelling mix if you are up to the task. 
Tricky has always been one to work with guest vocalists.  He recorded many of his early classics with Martina Topley-Bird, for instance.  On “Knowle West Boy,” he chose to work with several different guest voices.  
The album opens with “Puppy Toy,” a jazz-infused number featuring standout work from vocalist Alex Mills.  Mills sings her heart out during the chorus, while during the verses Tricky applies his distinctive rasp to a sleek piano riff.  “Cough up a lung,” he says at one point, whispering like a rapping answer to Tom Waits. The song’s lyrical meaning is a mystery (“Your fruit is slightly bruised.”) but this track is a full-on winner.  It’s one of the most commercial sounding tracks on the album.  It’s the kind of song hip-hop and R&B radio should take a chance on, but never would in a million years. 
“Bacative” is next.  Its reggae vibe is provided by guest vocalist Rodigan. During the chorus, the song speeds up with the suffocating chorus of “There’s no exit, / I can’t stand still, / Keep on running.”  The track plays like Tricky’s nod to Thievery Corporation.  “Joseph” is a soft, haunting track.  If it was an instrumental piece, it would’ve made a nice bit of score for a movie like “Lost in Translation.”  With lyrics, it is a soulful, reflective lament.  “Veronika” is a sparse, drum-and-vocal exercise.  Guest vocalist, Veronika Coassolo sings her song of scorn over a hard-edged electro-clash beat.  The results are almost harsh, but the track works in the end.  “Knowle West Boy” comes off as one of Tricky’s sleaziest sounding records to date, and that is most true when he decides to fully rock out.  “C’Mon Baby” oozes a sultry, skuzziness from its opening guitar riff.  There’s something about the way Tricky says, “I take too much, I taste your touch” backed by a pounded out beat.  The song is lurid and darkly sensual while at the same time abrasive.  The rock edge continues with the surprisingly punked-up “Council Estate.”  Wisely, this was picked as the single and it truly rewarding.  Tricky normally whispers his way through his records.  Here, he is at a near yell over a guitar-fuel, electro-tinged beat.  It brings more urgency to the track, especially when the lyrics seemingly tell the story of his birth and childhood.  This song is full of anger and aggression, but Tricky uses these emotions to his benefit.  “Past Mistake” uses a slow, ominous beat and a minor-key, minimalist piano line to set a menacing scene.  Combined with backing synth-strings and a sadly sung melody, the track hits its mark right on the head.  This track recalls the best moments of his earlier records.  “Coalition” finds Tricky delivering an off-kilter battle-rap on which he brings up everything from organized religions, to consumerism culture to racism.  Lyrically, it’s hard to determine what exactly his overall message is, but it’s an interesting stew. It goes back and forth, constantly coming back to the line, “The revolution will be televised in Iran and the Holy Koran.”  Overall, the track seems to make a statement about socio-economic greed and warfare among different cultures and countries.  “Cross to Bear” is a softly jazzy song about faith, which sounds like a more orchestral answer to Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.”  It takes about two and a half minutes for the beat to come in, giving the track a delicate feeling. It makes an interesting, soft companion piece to the much angrier “Coalition.”  The guitars are back again, this time with a full-throttle dance beat when Tricky tries his hand at covering Kylie Minogue’s “Slow.”  He’s tried covers before. “Vulnerable” for instance featured covers of “The Lovecats” by the Cure and XTC’s “Dear God,,” while his 1996 album “Nearly God” featured a nice reworking of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.”  It’s safe to say that Tricky gives his version of “Slow” a sick, sticky, muscular boldness.   It’s an aggressive, hard-edged, rocked-out dance number in his hands.     
“Baligaga” is another reggae-infused track.  Over a minimal, but still menacing bass-line, Rodigan talks about “TV gangsters,” declaring, “you don’t ever want to see my anger.”  This is Tricky’s effective attempt at a more traditional dancehall track.  The flute that comes and goes throughout is an interesting touch, as is the saxophone which takes over the second half of the track.  Lyrically, it gets a little monotonous, but the instrumentation carries it through.  “Far Away” is a surprising slice of dreamy new-wave.  For once the melancholy mood of the rest of the album is lifted to show something brighter.  It’s proof that if he wanted to, Tricky could be making top-quality pop records.
The album closes with the acoustic-guitar driven “School Gates” which tells the sad tale of a pregnant fifteen-year-old.  This is a walking blues in Tricky’s world. It’s a sad, slightly trip-driven folk song.  As it builds, an electric guitar lead is added, as is a string section.  Tricky’s tracks are rarely this straightforward. This song is the soft landing this album needs.    “Knowle West Boy” is the best album Tricky has delivered in a decade.  It stands among his classics and brings a new dynamic to the table.  It will be too artsy for your average pop fan, but pop fans have never been his audience, anyway.  This album is an overdue return to form.  I hope his next few albums continue the trend.  The “Tricky Kid” is back!   

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