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Tricky – Knowle West Boy (Album Review)

For an album whose title promises to see the one-time Massive Attack member, toast of the chattering music classes and Hollywood debutante return to his roots in the run-down district of Bristol’s Knowle West, it’s telling how far this record reveals Tricky to have traveled from his early output. Released by the post-Franz Domino label with Tricky assisted at the boards by Bernard Butler and Switch, it’s an album made by committee when compared with those early records that saw him crowned as the ’90s foremost twisted auteur.

Somewhere between the celebrated “Maxinquaye” and 1998’s “Angels With Dirty Faces”, the public perception of Tricky shifted from ‘dark genius with some cracking tunes’ to ‘paranoid nut job with none’. Ironically, Portishead have been celebrated for their forays into increasingly intense and foreboding drone where Tricky sent critics running with the bilious motorik gumbo of tracks like “Money Greedy”.

As the former spent 11 years studying for one record, Tricky’s skill was always an instinctive command of the studio. When the BBC filmed him revisiting his school music class he advised the kids that lessons and theory were “rubbish”. The point being that he wasn’t bothered by the formal rules that have guided most pop. Instead, he made a virtue of his ignorance, like his beloved Bomb Squad whose production for Public Enemy and Ice Cube discovered radical new sounds by ‘doing it all wrong’.

Which brings us to the problem with “Knowle West Boy”: it tries too hard to do everything right. And when he’s playing by the rules Tricky sounds pedestrian, a holidaying former trip hop star you’re likely to stumble across playing the Pyramid Stage on a sunny Sunday afternoon, backed by slick session musicians. “C’Mon Baby” is a predictable romp through the kind of studio rock that’s marred much of his output since “Angels…” with just a tantalising flash of the free associative verse that once made him such a disturbing but thrilling performer.

Speaking in tongues of existential dread, you’d imagine, can’t be an easy trick to conjure after years of comfortable minor celebrity lived in pristine New York. But there are some triumphs. “Past Mistake” evokes wonderfully odd ballads like “Makes Me Wanna Die” and “Suffocated Love” in which Tricky shadowed-boxed his muttered, whispered words behind his beautiful marionette, Martina. “Coalition”, despite lyrical missteps, contains much of the righteous fug of his best music and “Cross To Bear” is an unlikely but hugely enjoyable meeting of ’90s Bristol and pastoral British folk.

No doubt “Knowle West Boy” will be greeted as a return to form; the truth is more that it’s a concession to formalism. It makes for some pleasingly approachable music but that’s not what he’ll be remembered for.