As it turns out, Tricky's been making records even he hates -- contract-killers, he might call them, if not audience-killers in the process. (Everything since 1995's Maxinquaye has been one "fuck-off" record after another, he explains, as in: "Fuck off, I'm not giving people what they want," he offers in his new Disney-financed bio.) If you don't believe him, just take one listen to 1999's Juxtapose (what -- bad songs with worse songs?), which all but demolished whatever good will was left toward the man who made trip-hop more than just something Dick Van Dyke used to do. He even sent a missive to his fans over the Internet, hoping to repair the damage caused by Juxtapose: "1) I don't like the album and 2) who the fuck wants 2 be a pop star? Well anyway . . . I wanna apologize 4 all my vocals on juxtapose and 2 anybody i may have hurt over the years with my vocals or otherwise," he offered, playing the surprising, even unbecoming role of the penitent (being an artist means never having to say you're sorry; that's the audience's job).
But now Tricky's free -- of Island Records, of his longtime manager and attorney, of collaborator Martina Topley Bird (still pals, though), of the weight on his shoulders, and of the dense, dreary, paranoid, claustrophobic music that rendered him unlistenable to all but the faithful who drenched themselves in the dark. And with such liberation comes newfound happiness; you can hear the man smile. Now, more than anything else, Tricky wants to be pop and popular, rock star and radio star -- everything he went out of his way to avoid becoming these last five years. The new record might yet make him one; rare is the musician so willing to sell, even sell out, without betraying what brung him.
Blowback sounds as though it was made by, of and for the Top 40 -- not in this world, mind you, where Travis is considered experimental by consultants too chicken-shit to program for anyone with a driver's license, but in The Perfect World, where you dance and trance away your post-millennial tension. The opening cut, "Excess," is one of those perfect pop concoctions that keeps you coming back for more; it begs you to listen, but with one arm keeping you at bay -- a beguiling tease. The song unfolds like a dream, its synth-strings melody and drum-machine beats whispering beneath the surface, until suddenly a chorus of dance-floor angels descends to set your heart beating and toes tapping. It's the feel-good track of Tricky's career: "I can breathe and make a wish," he growls in that voice that sounds like a tank rolling over crushed glass, only this time the menace is cut with hope and faith. The fury's still there (he takes it out on his absentee father in "Girls," for one small instance), but this time crossed arms also embrace.
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Hoping to land on MTV and VH1 (again, from the bio, which reads like a business plan), Tricky's rounded up pop stars whose coattails he can cling to for the ride: Alanis Morissette, Live's Ed Kowalcyzk (who's never sounded better, which is offered with an Ike Turner backhand), three out of four Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cyndi Lauper; also here is New Yawk Jamaican Hawkman and Ambersunshower, the new Martina, only less so. There's even the novelty song sure to pique the interest of the casual fan, as if any exist: a cover of the Wonder Woman theme song (twixt that and Hawkman, where's the rest of the Justice League of America?) sung by Peppers guitarist John Frusciante like a little kid playing cross-dress-up. Don't quite know why it's here, other than to keep you interested when things start to drag midway through (Ambersunshower's "Your Name" never transcends its status as throwaway lullaby, and Hawkman's about as essential as . . . the Hourman), but the whole affair's such a welcome relief from recent efforts you're just glad for the chance to smile, even if you're not as stoned as Tricky (always) is.