I heard the songs and I immediately knew--the oddly phrased piano lick in "Puppy Toy", the resurgent aggression of "C'mon Baby", the drivingly exotic groove of "Baligaga", the moving real-time elegy of "Joseph"--Tricky, whom I have come to love for the genius of his early work and his career-spanning sense of ear-catching sounds, has returned! After what started to seem like a death knell with the release of the stale albums Blowback and Vulnerable, Tricky has returned to the music world sounding 100% fresh and ready to take a whole new audience by storm. Now, though, he's turned his old mistakes into new disciplines, and that's what makes Knowle West Boy superb.
How Knowle West Boy really wins my favor is that it combines both new (rock and dance) and old (trip hop, hip hop, and ambient) elements of Tricky's repertoire into something greater, making the album very much an opus. While it is not so hazy as Maxinquaye or Nearly God, it exudes the same offbeat catchiness of those early works. Many hooks and ideas that might have belonged to Blowback or Vulnerable also appear here, but in the context of the vastly improved songwriting they sound completely different. In the song "Joseph" I especially grow nostalgic, hearing so much of a resemblance to the sorrowfully introspective stuff of Tricky's early years--and yet this new track does not lose any credibility for being so much better produced than in the past, a problem that plagued Tricky just a two albums ago.
To his credit, Knowle West Boy draws on many elements that Tricky has not had success with before and expands on those he has. Most prominent here is the more electrified rock-driven sound he tried to pick up at the beginning of the New Millennium. Amazingly, that electro-rock sound works here--songs like "Slow" and "Far Away" breathe and invite the listener, instead of making them feeling trapped in a static field. Ideas reminding of Goldfrapp and Gorillaz have crept in and reveal a renewed sense of Tricky's intimacy with modern music as a writer and a producer. In place of the repetitive and over-produced sounds of Blowback and Vulnerable, these pieces feel as fresh and thoughtful as Tricky's older, more mellow material, in spite of being divergent in style and sound. This is the album's greatest accomplishment and something that Tricky should be very proud of--that he has evolved as an artist and succeeded in that evolution (after several years of trying).
I can't say enough how well Tricky's combination of music and lyrics can capture what superficially might be a ghetto memoir or a drug-induced phantasm and make it feel like an existential treatise that applies to everyone. I am reminded in places of songs like "Peyote Sings" and "Lyrics of Fury" and yet the overall album never lulls into the dreamy sleep that made his early recordings work. Aforementioned songs like "Baligaga" (with its thwacking bass, in-and-out drum layering, and sweltering saxophone) and "Joseph" (subtley percussive beneath a layer of amniotic dreaming) have just enough wailing, anguished siren song in the back of their off-kilter grooves to invite a lot of comparison to Tricky's early 90's ability to put one into a different state of mind.
I feel like we finally have our prophet of Bristol sound back after years in the wilderness. Clearly, however, he has moved on to a new sound altogether--he brings to us new commandments, but they bear the same strange and wonderful news as before. Knowle West Boy is arguably Tricky's most successful forward leap in his entire career, moving beyond Bristol sound and yet maintaining his message and his credibility. The album brings renewed hope that there is still a lot of promise left in the Tricky Kid.