Is the year 2008 a Bristol revival? First there's a new Portishead recording (Third), their first in over a decade, then Massive Attack finishes a new album (Weather Underground) and curates the Meltdown festival, and finally, Tricky's released his finest record since Pre-Millennium Tension. Knowle West Boy is named for the Council Estates housing project neighborhood Tricky grew up in. This set is not shrouded in mystery: it's autobiographical. It's the first album of well-crafted songs he's come up with since Maxinquaye (but doesn't sound a thing like it). As has been his wont since early on, Tricky also employs a host of other vocalists here for the sake of expressing more complex emotions, and also toward spinning a more complete -- if sometimes complex -- narrative. Rage and paranoia haven't been replaced so much as they've been extrapolated upon and expanded by humor, joy, bravado, and an authentic vulnerability and sense that the personal is political, as this set deals straight on with issues of race and class without even remotely preaching. That said, it's a down and dirty musical beat collision that combines punk, reggae, funk, pop, and hip-hop and hard rock in a wicked brew that is focused and in your face.
The set begins with a lounge-blues soundscape that evokes the late-night feel of Barry Adamson at his sleaziest. It explodes about a minute in, strutting its scrappy big band against Fripp-ian guitars, a cracking distorted snare, and cymbal thuggery. The cool thing is in its humor. Tricky plays a lounge lizard boasting about himself to a young woman (Alex Mills) who hands it back to him on a funhouse mirror. The first single, "Council Estate," is a furious punk anthem created as a football-style chant set to a post-punk bassline, with big menacing kick drums, staggered reverb vocals, and Tricky letting the pride in his upbringing come to the fore. It's a breathless two-and-a-half minutes, but it's the best thing here. "Past Mistake" is reminiscent of the torch song duet balladry of Nearly God's "Poems," a tune Tricky performed with Terry Hall and Martina Topley-Bird. "Bacative" employs a ragged punk-charged ragga, and features toaster Rodigan (a New Yorker of West Indian origin). He begins his toast to a plucked cello, drum loops, snares, tambourines, and a set of hi-hat cymbals that shimmer above the bassline. "Joseph" is titled for a young man who does the vocals. The use of harp, hand drums, vibes, and a synthed bassline is strangely atmospheric and haunting. "Veronika" features vocals by French-Moroccan vocalist Lubua; it commences with a slew of distorted beats and tom-tom loops that feel like a military march; her voice is anything but, however. She expresses hurt, heartbreak, and anger brought about by the absent subject. She is also present on the haunting ballad "School Gates" that closes the set; a haunting ballad about a teen pregnancy told from both male and female points of view. "C'Mon Baby" is a rockist thumper that evokes AC/DC with beats! There is also a cover here of Kylie Minogue's "Slow." Whereas the original is all sleek, sensual, and inviting, Tricky inverts the song's meaning by becoming a sleazy, macho Lothario narrating. Knowle West Boy is not another Maxinquaye (it doesn't try, either) but it is a very strong, accessible set that puts his renewed creativity on display in a blur of sound and color. It not only re-establishes him as a pioneer, but as an engaging personae who isn't hiding behind his sonic palette anymore; his music is all the better for it.