Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Thwocks and Whispers

"Mellow" might have been recorded in a shipyard: augmenting Jack Hersca's nagging if fetching guitar and Gene Lake's steady if seething drums is a rhythm element that suggests a boat whistle heard across a moonless harbor. Tricky's vocal is whispered as usual, and although he claims She makes him want to move, movement seems a distant memory for this chap, who's clearly wounded or gravely ill. Next track, the artist makes his pop bid with a catchy femme-chorus refrain--"Those men will brake [sic] your bones/Don't know how to build stable homes"--and a guest star: PJ Harvey, what a draw! And for another three songs or so, a decent level of musical amenity is maintained: Martina's crooning tale of woe underpinned by low-register guitar/keyb riffs of unspecified origin and Calvin Weston's free drumming, three-note distorto hook beneath Tricky's own speed-mumble, xylophonish tinkle countered by a keyb belch like an engine that won't catch. After that, though, it's time to face facts. Angels With Dirty Faces is no fun at all.

Well, what did anyone expect? The Spice Girls? The Sneaker Pimps? Just a miracle, that's all. Tricky (not to mention the Sneaker Pimps) wouldn't be making albums, at least in America, if he hadn't consummated a miracle. Listening back to Maxinquaye in the wake of Nearly God, Pre-Millennium Tension, and Angels With Dirty Faces, what stands out isn't the dolor pop generalists noticed at the time, but the listenability that induced them to bother: Martina's pervasive lyricism, beats that are buoyant at any speed, a profusion of sweet-tempered keyb effects that signify melody, harmony, strings. It's still pretty morose, sure. But nothing in its bitter passivity and contained rage comes off as a defeat or a sham. Albert Murray's disquisition on Stomping the Blues puts it this way: "The main thing, whatever the form, is resistance if not hostility. Because the whole point is not to give in and let them get you down. Nor is a flamboyant display of militant determination necessarily more effective than is cool resolution. Sometimes a carefully controlled frown or even the faintest of supercilious smiles will work as much havoc as a scream or a shout." Maxinquaye had that kind of cool. With blues replications per se having worn out their formal gris-gris, it voiced and embraced a grim new resignation about freedom, power, race, and human connection in the postwelfare state--and simultaneously counteracted it.

Although Tricky likes to downplay his links to the Wild Bunch, the clearest way to map his sonic coordinates is by conceiving Massive Attack as an axis from which to measure Soul II Soul on one side and Tricky on the other. Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper produced Protection for Massive Attack, yet Protection presaged Maxinquaye anyway, and not just because Tricky's "Karmacoma" was the act's catchiest and spookiest song ever. Each thick-textured, clean-etched track checking in with its own subtle beat, Protection is trip hop without pain or mess, doing a solid for vocalists in need and stretching instrumentals into a comfort zone just a little too unusual for the funk-lite hedonists Soul II Soul was then servicing so warmly. Maxinquaye gave Protection's pleasures an edge--made them artistically respectable, you might say--with acerbic reality checks, disgruntled digressions, and the ever-present danger that the pieces weren't going to fit together in the end, or even right now. It was like Godard remaking Breathless with a LePen angle and the good guys not dying; it was like walking into a motel bar after blowing a rod and the trio is playing Bird and "Misterioso." In Tricky's mind, I'm sure, the antisocial stuff was the point; he was only disarming or catchy because he'd gotten into the habit on his old job. But this compromise-as-synthesis sold him to nitpickers everywhere--everyone who found Jazzie B and Trent Reznor equally simple-minded.

Maxinquaye was best contemplated in solitude, or in the reflective late-night of a silent thruway journey or bedtime wind-down. Yet it also made suitable dinner music, especially for folks who don't bat an eye when you fuck them in the ass just for a laugh. Tricky has battled rancorously to avoid this trap ever since. Because his critical supporters were arty hip hoppers, doom-friendly dance-trancers, and adepts of postpunk abrasion, none of whom had run out of warm things to say about Maxinquaye, you would hardly have known what a departure Pre-Millennium Tension was, much less how often the Nearly God multi-artist project achieved the stasis true Tricky albums only play with. But Angels With Dirty Faces establishes what might have been an experiment as an m.o. There are changes to be sure. No matter how short it may be on what you'd call songs, this is a rock album, with a shifting live band on every track even if the booklet fails to account for all the corresponding sounds. There are almost no credited samples, a show of artistic autonomy precisely as honorable as that of Tricky's royalty-conscious predecessors Luke Campbell and Hammer. Be all that as it may, however, Angels With Dirty Faces sounds a lot more like Pre-Millennium Tension than Pre-Millennium Tension does like Maxinquaye. Rather than stomping the blues, it tries to nickel-and-dime them to death. It's not fun, and wouldn't make any sense if it was. But that doesn't mean you won't wonder what you'll hear next, and find solace in your curiosity.

So it's back to that shipyard, or someplace like it. The title track defines the album: Tricky whispering (when he singsongs it's a relief) and Martina dreaming out loud--"Angels with dirty faces/Disappear without traces"--over background music for a scary walk through a desolate cityscape, maybe out near the Gowanus Canal where the mob does its hits, any flow frayed irreparably by the pops, thwocks, fractured klaxons, and random screeches of percussion from nowhere. The residue of grimy technologies is all over the record as it settles into a state of permanent low-level disorder: foghorns lowing, brakes complaining, clocks sounding across windswept nights, locomotives struggling uphill. On "Tear Out My Eyes," it really is as if Tricky is ready to die, arguably in the role of Kurt Cobain (or Jimi Hendrix)--there's a Seattle reference before "Wanna take my clothes off/Tear my mouth and nose off and take out my eyes." Toward the end things do get faster and angrier. But since the invective, if that's what you want to call the barely articulated likes of "Why the fuck do they keep making those guns?" and "You trample on my soul," is directed primarily at the music business, big deal.

"I don't like this century," Tricky mutters in the course of "Record Companies," and that sums up his worldview as eloquently as words ever will. It's the sounds that signify, and postindustrially premillennial though Tricky's may be, they're also original, strong, and to the point. He distinguishes himself from the run of noise sculptors just by remaining conducive to recognizable life. He's a hater not a fighter, and the devil is in his details. So give that man a set of horns--he's earned them.

Village Voice, June 9, 1998