How does knowing expectations alter your opinion of a work?
For example, if you know that the maker of a car designed a sedan specifically
to be seen as both fun and practical, do you allow yourself to be swayed by
the ad copy, or do you go with your gut reaction that any car with a
built-in bud vase needs to be crushed before it leaves the factory? This
question came to mind the second time I listened to Blowback. The disc's
promotional package is Cliff's Notes for the US radio DJ who has never heard of Tricky. The list of accomplishments ("Rolling Stone named...", "Genre
Bending UK native..") is followed by a list of the album's key guest stars. I can hear the stock DJ voice in my head saying "If the Red Hot Chili Peppers will play with him, this guy must rock!" Moving beyond the packaging to the material, Blowback includes a few songs that seem
custom built to satisfy various radio format standards. "Wonder Woman" is the
Mentos commercial the company lost but Top 40 stations found. "Girls" would
not sound out of place slotted between Cypress Hill and 311 on your local
Alternative station's play list.
However, I don't think Blowback was a calculated project from the word go. I
base my claim on a few things: precedent, past statements by Tricky and
Blowback's other, more complex songs. I've always viewed Tricky as more of a
producer and songwriter than a performer. Akin to Quincy Jones or
Steely Dan, Tricky uses other artists to achieve a certain sound or effect.
As such, with Tricky's discography lined with a long list collaborations and
contributions, I don't have to look askance at Flea or Ed Kowalcyzk's name
on the Blowback liner notes. Instead, I recognize that they, or
someone like Alanis Morissette (n.b. for unexplained reasons, her vocals
were dropped from one song and mixed down in another) are there because
Tricky had a place for their voices. That's one of the kicks of being a
rock star, I guess -- you can call up anyone to come play with you.
Blowback sounds different -- more organic, perhaps -- than Tricky's previous albums. By organic, I mean that the keyboards and vocals have not been
processed into noise, and the arrangements find a place somewhere between
spartan and a ProTools experiment. Songs are layered with background vocals
and guitar chatterings without being made into complex boxes of tension and
weight -- think Dirty Mind recorded in a fully equipped studio and not
Prince's basement. I assume this is the sound Tricky said he was working
towards in the press before and during the release of his last full length,
Juxtapose. Tricky called it "a Pop sound". He's not suddenly
sounding like the Beatles, and I don't think the music is that
much more accessible, but some of the internal pressure that was so apparent in
previous works has been eased.
Remove "Girls" and "Wonder Woman" from Blowback and you'd have a
solid album. "Excess", the lead track, is a "My Favorite Things"-like
litany bundled into a head bobbing rhythm. "You Don't Wanna" and "Five Days"
are two uneasy love songs built around simple keyboard riffs; the vocals,
by Ambersunshower and Cyndi Lauper, respectively, successfully churn the
emotional undercurrents to keep the songs from being plain. There's a pleasant surprise in the middle of the album: "Your Name", a
pared down rendition of "Under the Bamboo Tree" from Meet Me In St. Louis,
is the sweetest song I've ever heard on a Tricky album. Tricky and
Ambersunshower pull it off well, delivering the lyrics in such a way as to
be loving without being saccharine. "Bury the Evidence" and "A Song for
Yukiko" should be cherished points for longtime fans, as these two tracks have been
played live in various forms for the past few years. It's nice to finally
have "official" versions. "Bury the Evidence" is the type of song you want
to hear after a bad meeting with your boss. "Song for Yukiko" is the song
you want to hear when you get home from work that day.
Perhaps US radio stations will embrace Tricky because of
Blowback, but I doubt it. Tricky's musical vocabulary still contains
the word "option" -- not a word radio likes to acknowledge. Tricky's music is
full of options, swinging between love songs and revenge fantasies, social
commentary and diary entries. Tricky will back a synth-pop keyboard melody
with churning guitars or whisper a jazz standard over drum loops and heavy
bass lines. There is always too much potential to find something new in
Tricky's music. Radio wants a known entity, something definite and static. Blowback, by being different from Tricky's previous releases, appears on the surface to be just what radio is asking for...but in the end, it's still too different from what radio accepts.