Still tricky

Music - Caspar Llewellyn Smith on the return of the authentic voice of British urban angst

It has been ten years since Tricky - erstwhile member of the Bristol group Massive Attack - released his first record under his own name. Around the same time, the Britpop troops were stirring, with bands such as Suede and Blur waving the flag for an old-fashioned sort of English guitar rock. Contrary to what most writers on this heady period claim, there was never a problem with liking this retro-blinded new breed at the same time as the more modern sounds of jungle and trip-hop. Still, there was a split in pop music.

Trip-hop describes the sort of ambient hip-hop emerging, mainly from the West Country, at the time. It combined samples and the mixing desk - the kind of sonic textures patented by Brian Eno - with the rhythm of black urban music. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than on that first Tricky album, Aftermath, a claustrophobic record containing dialogue from Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner and Tricky half-mumbling words about nuclear devastation. So much for the cheery maxims - "We are young, we are free!" - of the Britpop boys.

I first interviewed Tricky, for Select magazine, just before the release of Maxinquaye, the album which established him as one of the most singular talents in British pop music for years. Over the next two years, I bumped into him on a few occasions on the music scene - he was part of new swinging London, but not wholly of it. Tricky's manifesto has always been to work against the trend. "I think [my music] is more bluesy than hip-hop or trip-hop," he said, "which is just a trendy label", and: "As long as I don't have to make a radio-friendly song, I'll be happy." The last time I met him, two years ago, he told me: "It's really weird . . . but I've started making pop music."

But the blues is a good place to start. Born Adrian Thaws, Tricky lost his mother - Maxine Quaye, an epileptic who committed suicide - when he was four. His father walked out of his life shortly afterwards. He grew up with his extended family in an atmosphere of frequent violence in the grim Bristol suburb of Knowle West. His was the authentic voice of the British ghetto. Unlike his hip-hop peers, however, Tricky never bragged about or embellished his experiences for the sake of success. Rather, his tunes and his lyrics were shifty, uneasy.

His affinity with English acts such as David Bowie or The Specials was as apparent as any similarity to American rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan. The ambiguity in his work included gender roles, and extended to Tricky wearing dresses in pho- toshoots. He followed Max- inquaye with even darker, more difficult albums - Pre-Millennium Tension (1996), Angels With Dirty Faces (1998) and Juxtapose (1999) - as well as a couple of similarly uncommercial collaborations.

Since Massive Attack and Portishead, the second chief Avon trip-hop band, only released records sporadically, the media spotlight soon fell away from that scene. Once celebrated by the music and style press, Tricky himself became an irrelevance, even an embarrassment. It didn't help that he assaulted two journalists for allegedly misrepresenting him in print or that he recorded a track insulting the president of his then record company, Polydor.

The last time I interviewed him was for the release of his album BlowBack, two years ago. He said then that he'd calmed down a lot, partly because he'd discovered that he suffers from an extreme yeast allergy, which provoked dramatic mood swings. He had changed his diet and settled into a sedate routine - living alone in a small town in New Jersey.

Any suggestion that he'd mellowed out - or sold out - was dispelled by the record, the first three tracks of which were among his very best. Since then he's headed even further west, to Los Angeles, where rather than consort with actresses and groupies, he's living in the city's underbelly. At least, that's the impression given by the footage on the excellent DVD (www.anti.com) that's included with his new album, Vulnerable. Its arrival has barely been noted by the music press. Like the admittedly stronger BlowBack, it is quite poppy, though not in a way that will have S Club's junior fans reaching to smash their piggy banks. It sounds like nothing else around, with its strange mix of clattering beats, angular guitars and breathy vocals.

The singer is an Italian called Costanza Francavilla, who sounds very like Martina Topley Bird (his one-time muse and the mother of his child). It's a shame that he doesn't rap much himself because no one else in the past decade has better articulated a sense of modern turmoil. But, reassuringly, even if MTV were to put the tracks from Vulnerable on heavy rotation, there's little likelihood that he would ever conform to expectations.

Tricky's new single, "Antimatter", is out on 7 July

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