It’s one thing to make records that talk about oppressionfolksingers have been doing it for decades. It’s quite another to convey soul-sucking tyranny through the music itself, but often the most compelling protest songs do just that. In the 1950s, Charles Mingus confronted racism in America with the alternately militant and pained colors of “Haitian Fight Song.” Sly and the Family Stone captured the disillusionment of the early ’70s with the drunken tempos, disembodied groans, and drive-by guitar of There’s a Riot Goin’ On. And in the late ’80s, Public Enemy issued a call to arms with “Bring the Noise,” a barrage of beats, rhymes, and sirensthe sonic equivalent of an air strike.
During the ’90s, though, few artists have captured the very sound of injustice as effectively as Tricky has. And never has this been more apparent than on the British B-boy’s new album, Angels With Dirty Faces (Island). “Mellow,” the opening track, establishes the feeling of dis-easein this case, physical and emotionalthat pervades the album. “I’m gonna see my baby/She makes me feel like movin’,” Tricky wheezes to skanking rhythms and a vaguely Hindi guitar obbligato. The contrast between the song’s horny lyrics and its woozy music is chilling: With his asthmatic vocals, Tricky sounds like he can’t lift his head, let alone get out of bed.
Not all of the album is as entropic as “Mellow.” On the beat-maelstrom of “Money Greedy,” for instance, Tricky rails against what ails him. And these days, it’s his record company: Last fall, a high-ranking exec at Polygram, the label that owns Island Records, alleged that all African Americans working in the music business were felons. Incensed by the racist slur, Tricky recut “Money Greedy,” aiming his anti-corporate rant directly at Polygram; he retitled the song “Divine Comedy” and self-released it as a 12-inch single. “Every black man in the music industry has a criminal conviction/How can you say that with conviction,” he fumes. “Who I am, Polygram/Fuck you niggers/Polygram!/Ya fuckin’ niggers.” Appropriately, the spine-shattering sample upon which Tricky builds the track is from Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours.”
Without a doubt, Tricky’s tiff with Polygram serves as the subtext of his new album. Besides the self-explanatory “Record Companies,” there’s “Broken Homes,” in which guest vocalist Polly Harvey targets her ire at the music business and the media. “Those men will break your bones,” she sings. “Don’t know how to build stable homes.” There’s also “6 Minutes,” Tricky’s barbed send-up of “this industry full of vomit.” Yet informing all this talk about the evils of the biz is a larger visionthat of a world in which safety and decency are absent, if not altogether out of reach.
Tricky, born Adrian Thawes in the British seaport of Bristol, comes by his dim view of the world honestly. His half-African, half-Welsh mother committed suicide when he was 4. His Jamaican father abandoned him shortly afterward, leaving him to live with relatives in the all-white ghetto of Knowley West, where he soon took up hustling and acquired the nickname “Tricky Kid.”
Of course, Tricky finally got out, finding fame first with pioneering trip-hoppers Massive Attack and then as a solo artist and producer. And yet, as the new album’s allusions to street violence, drug culture, and the dole attest, he remains obsessed with his troubled youth. But even more than his words (“I wanna take off my clothes, tear my mouth and nose off, and take out my eyes”), it’s the grooves that give Tricky away. He admits as much in “Analyze Me,” in which he advises those who would probe his music for clues to his character to “start...off in the hips, [then] move to my lips.”
Whether he’s constructing dub-wise hip-hop from samples, as he did on his decade-defining debut Maxinquaye, or whether he’s assembling the hottest players from NYC’s downtown jazz-rock scene, as he has here, sound has always been tantamount to sense in Tricky’s music. From his fear that intimacy isn’t possible to his outrage over social injustice, Tricky translates his feelings into music of primordial power that seizes the body even as it speaks to the soul.
That said, the dyspeptic sounds and cadences of Angels With Dirty Faces don’t always make for an easy listen. A claustrophopic din of factory, subway, and traffic sounds percolates throughout the album, while certain tracks reach a fever pitch: Relentless polyrhythms intensify the ghetto nightmare of “The Moment I Feared,” and on “Singing the Blues,” a stinging guitar hounds singer Martina Topley-Bird no less than the unpaid bills she moans about.
Lacking warmth and hooks, Angels has neither the exotic sexiness of Maxinquaye, nor the breathtaking austerity of Tricky’s last release, Pre-Millennium Tension. As such, it’s a forbidding introduction to his work. But as on James Blood Ulmer’s molten 1982 album Black Rock, the album’s unleashing fury can be inspiringan expression of willed chaos, even resistance, in the face of oppressive order. And therein lies the promise that Tricky buries in the disc’s sullied grooves.
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!