It’s become a cliché already this year to start a review about a dark album with a line saying something like “this perfectly captures the mood of 2020” and some waffle about how it reminds us all of the claustrophobia of lockdown, the fear of deadly disease, the reality of global unrest etc. I’ve been guilty of it myself; it’s very easy to regard a piece of art in such a biased way, so as to interpolate it into a narrative about what’s going on in the world and in your own life at the time. If Nirvana had released In Utero this year, I’m certain we would’ve remembered it as a perfect summation of the collective feeling of ensuing calamity.
The fact is that all times are dark times. Not equally, of course, and not for all people at all times. But darkness has existed in the human world for as long as it has contained humans; we are a species uniquely aware of this, and much of our best art has confronted this darkness head-on.
Tricky is a part of such a grand lineage (which also includes Nirvana), his music utterly obsessed with darkness. His unique sound is based on murky soundscapes, melancholy samples, bitterly growled vocals, and lyrics that plumb the depths of pain. He is often labelled as trip-hop, but he’s always resisted that label, and rightly so: the trip-hop of Massive Attack and Soul II Soul has an upbeat undertow to its soulful vocals, which is utterly absent in Tricky’s music. Sicker and more twisted, yet also more bleakly humorous, than either of those acts (even if he contributed to Massive Attack’s overall complexity), it feels redundant to call his style “trip-hop”. In fact, let’s just call it what it really is: a “bad trip”.
Yet if Tricky’s music was only plumbing darkness, he would be no deeper than the average death metal band. Whilst unquestionably cynical, downbeat and jaded, Tricky always finds redemption in the darkest places, not just nihilistic despair. And he usually finds this in young female vocalists; vocalists of limited range and technical ability, yet with unquestionable personality and distinctiveness. Most famously, there was Martina Topley-Bird, whom Tricky discovered as a teenager aimlessly singing whilst sitting on a wall in Bristol, and made the star of his masterpiece Maxinquaye.
His latest muse, on Fall to Pieces, is Marta Złakowska, who sings with a similar restrained, girlish lack of virtuosity as Topley-Bird on most of the tracks. Her sweetness is disarming but not sickening; her cadence conversational without ever being boring. She sounds like she’s just walked in off the street, been given some stuff to sing, and done it without much fuss or forethought. Tricky seems as charmed by such feigned amateurishness as he always has done. And as usual, he uses the young woman’s girlish charms to fend off the ever-enveloping darkness of his inner soul, at times successfully, at others less so.
As others have mentioned in their reviews of Fall to Pieces, this brief album (under half an hour) was recorded shortly following the suicide of his daughter. So, understandably, the darkness here is even blunter and more piercing than ever before in his music. Złakowska can only partly deflect such inner turmoil, and only for so long: she’s the only singer for the first 4 songs on the album, as if Tricky needs to listen to her comforting tones for a while in order to gather the strength to come in.
Yet when he finally does come in, it’s devastating: the relentlessly bleak “Hate this Pain” has Tricky growling like a mortally wounded animal with lines like “What a fucking game/I hate this fucking pain”. A blunt, straightforward cry of pain, it’s his equivalent of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, with Tricky refusing to cover up any of his feelings with flowery language or musical distractions; it’s just him and a bleak piano loop, alone, as if it will go on forever.
Tricky occasionally pipes up to air his despair across the rest of the album. But mostly he takes a backseat vocally, apparently more comfortable busying himself with production duties, as if to distract himself. He creates a truly grim atmosphere, even if he doesn’t have the songs to truly deliver a complete knockout. The separate tracks can feel more like sketches than songs, the jottings of a depressed mind. Very little really rises above the murk. Even the slight length of Fall to Pieces comes to feel like a defeat.
But there are two surprises: “I’m in the Doorway” and “Fall Please” come out of nowhere to deliver genuine catchiness worthy of his Maxinquaye days. They even sound close to commercial pop songs, something that Tricky himself admitted in the case of “Fall Please”, about which he said: “It’s my version of pop music, the closest I’ve got to making pop.” And it’s true: the beat is sprightly, the bassline catchy, and the vocals not toodepressive. The bass hook on “I’m in the Doorway” is even catchier.
In these two tracks lies a hint of what could have been: like Paul McCartney recording a rock n’ roll covers album, Run Devil Run, following the death of his wife Linda, Tricky could perhaps have lost himself more completely in the escapist potential of pop music. That would have been a more radical, surprising, and moving move than the general muttered murk of Fall to Pieces.
But, naturally, it’s asking a lot of a bereaved parent to be mentally fit enough to produce something remarkable. So let Fall to Pieces simply stand as a distressing signal of Tricky’s current mental state, and wish the great man all the best for the future.