I grew up near Bristol, where Tricky comes from. It follows that I should feel a special connection to the trip-hop pioneer’s music, emanating as it does from an urban environment with which I’m very familiar. But though I love Tricky, his music has never been particularly interested in exploring that little pocket of England – his ambitions have always been at once more inward-looking and outward-reaching, in one of the many contradictions that have made his oeuvre so fascinating.
He’s obsessively insular, both in his trademark mumble-rap that doesn’t give a damn whether you can pick out every word or not, and in the lyrics themselves, which often delineate his troubled mental state and fractious relationship with women and fame. Yet he also looks outside of himself in order to transcend, via female vocalists that soar on his earlier albums (it’s hard to imagine Maxinquaye or Pre-Millennium Tension without the great Martina Topley-Bird), brilliantly chosen cover versions that are a tip of the hat to the wider world of music (the cover of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel” may be his finest moment), and beats and production tics that take their cues from African, Asian, and continental European sources.
This eclecticism and inability to settle down also shows up in his biography. Tricky once said in an interview: ‘I’ve been moved around from family to family, never stayed in one house from when I was born to the age of 16… I’m not normal. It’s got a lot to do with my upbringing… Staying somewhere for three years then going off for three years.’
Now the restless innovator has moved, once again, to Berlin, where ununiform was recorded. Yet rather than moving there for the sake of partying and taking enough drugs to kill a horse, he’s decided to move there for quite the opposite reason: ‘I like it here because I don’t know anybody. I eat good food, I go for walks, I’ve got a bike. I’m trying to look after myself. I don’t drink here. Some people call it boring, but I wake at 9am and I’m asleep by 11 o’clock at night. I’m looking after myself.’
Good for him. Contentment can have a healthy impact on the quality of work from musicians, more so than many critics tend to suspect – this year we’ve had Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound and Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life as particularly fine examples – and happiness can often be as much of a creative motivator as sorrow.
Which is not to say that ununiform is a chirpy album. Far from it: ‘It’s like slum days/When you go away’ goes the chorus of one track (“Dark Days”), ‘Where do we go/When we die?’ goes another (“When We Die”). Really, this isn’t Tricky’s album of sudden contentment – it’s melancholia, as per usual.
Sadly, there’s not enough hooks to leaven the dour atmosphere this time around. Industrial-sounding electronic rumbles and funereal tempos have been the norm for Tricky for a while, but rarely have they sounded as claustrophobic as on “It’s Your Day”, in which Kazakhstani rapper Scriptonite slowly… stresses… each… syllable… till you want it all to stop. And the song’s only 2 minutes long. Other disappointments include “The Only Way”, which has been billed by the man himself as “Hell Around the Corner Pt. 2”, and which indeed does sound similar to that earlier hit in its descending chord pattern and bass, however a straight-up comparison between the two shows up “The Only Way” for its lack of soul, by which I guess I mean a sample as gorgeous as “Ike’s Rap II”.
Meanwhile the requisite cover version, an ace choice as always in Hole’s “Doll Parts”, which stands as Courtney Love’s finest-ever moment as a songwriter, sounds rather miserably like an acoustic demo with some beats rushed on top of it, plus there’s a vibraphone halfway through that sounds annoyingly like a doorbell. It’s a lacklustre effort, and given the gender-bending of “Black Steel”, it could so easily have created more intrinsic interest by having Tricky, instead of female guest vocalist Avalon Lurks, singing ‘I want to be the girl with the most cake’.
Still, Tricky insists that the music’s ‘Same as it ever was… Hear my voice and you get a buzz’, and on several occasions you really do get a buzz from hearing the sonically imaginative wizard at work. “New Stole” works very well indeed, revelling in Francesca Belmonte’s casually evocative performance, and distorting her voice, with devious glee, at key moments. It sounds sinister and uplifting, like all of Tricky’s best stuff. And then there’s the real treat for long-term Tricky fans, “When We Die”, in which Martina Topley-Bird returns to help the man who claimed a few years ago ‘I don’t believe death exists’ to come to terms with its inevitable fact.
But these aren’t enough to elevate ununiform to anywhere near the glory days of his red-hot-streak of ’90s albums. The most intriguing sign of what could’ve been is “Bang Boogie”, in which Tricky brings in a rapper from Moscow called Smoky Mo, who performs in his native tongue, but then loses his nerve and cuts the song short at just past a minute. It’s a summation of the album as a whole, which makes a few interesting gestures, but ultimately lacks the nerve to go all the way with its best ideas.