Adrian Thaws, alias Tricky, Delivers Complexity You Can Dance To: Knowle West Boy

By Daniel Garrett

Tricky, Knowle West Boy
Produced by Tricky and Bernard Butler
Additional production by David “Switch” Taylor
Domino Recording Co., 2008

With Knowle West Boy, Tricky has given us music for the busy, crazy, diverse world we live in now, a world in which there is more rage and more sensitivity than anyone can account for. Nothing less could be expected from someone whose previous albums included the innovative Maxinquaye (1995), the angrily confessional Angels with Dirty Faces (1998) and the more obviously sensitive Vulnerable (2003). Tricky, born Adrian Thaws, is a category-destroyer of a musician whose Knowle West Boy, recorded in London and Los Angeles, is a thematic return to his British roots in a Bristol housing complex (called council estates there, the projects here). The city of Bristol, west of London and east of Cardiff, is one of England’s larger cities, with nearly a half-million residents. Knowle West Boy is scheduled for official American release in early September 2008 but already available as an import; and its centerpiece may be the song “Council Estate,” the first single, a recounting of birth, childhood, early education, and social conflict. The conflicts described are classic—between daily frustration and pride, between daily frustration and ambition, rooted in the fact that a child is who he seems to be and more than he is perceived to be (he is his potential). Of course, the child in the song becomes famous.

Tricky’s music is rooted in truth, the boy he was—Adrian Thaws. Adrian Thaws’s father left his life before he was born, and his mother committed suicide when he was four. His remaining relatives and his favorite music were positive influences in his life. Tricky, who has been described as funny and moody, earthy and prickly, loved the work of musicians such as the Specials, Prince, Kate Bush, Tom Waits, and Rakim. The young Adrian Thaws, then known as the Tricky Kid, worked with the collective called the Wild Bunch, from which both he and Massive Attack emerged. Although the old the neighborhood the now famous high school dropout Tricky recalls, Knowle West in Bristol, is thought of as a mostly white ghetto by many, Tricky has described growing up there as among his best times, noting especially the confidence he felt when he was a boy surrounded by his mixed-race family and friends. It is an unexpected sentimentality from someone whose work with the 1995 album Maxinquaye featuring Martina Topley-Bird, along with the music of the bands Massive Attack and Portishhead, introduced a new sound in the 1990s. It was a sound at once dreamy, sensual, smart, street, and textured, a sound that pushed Tricky to the front rank of musicians, where he formed bonds with the likes of Bjork, Neneh Cherry, Elvis Costello, Yoko Ono, and Bush. (Tricky has worked also as an actor, appearing in The Fifth Element; and as a director of the film Brown Punk.) Tricky has collaborated with many but remains an original.

The dynamic, fun, imaginative, and thus far well-received album Knowle West Boy features the genre-bending collaborations of Tricky with members of his own boutique label Brown Punk. Tricky is great at presenting complexity, including personal and social contradictions, for which he has found a musical language, mixing very different sounds. The soft, mellow male ruminations of the song “Joseph,” with its recurring verse “I sit up, I stand down,” suggest confession, fear, resignation. “Veronika” is a surprisingly strong song, with an assertive woman’s voice and a beat to match (silent song breaks add drama); and, the woman’s voice—that of singer Veronika Coassolo—offers a corrective, a “what might have been” if the person she was involved with had remembered and respected her. There is no way to listen to that song and others and not be impressed, once more, by the fact that Tricky is so open to female collaboration. “Coalition” makes a reference to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” (Of course, these days, the revolution may be televised, via the internet and cell phones and other recording devises.) The song “Coalition” is one in which different social identities are claimed, thereby flipping predictable scripts; and yet the narrator cannot leave behind conventional gender expectations. There is a male voice and a female voice singing alone and in harmony in “School Gates,” an ironic and even terrible harmony, as they recount one of the trials of youth, an unplanned pregnancy; with a bell-encrusted, heavy beat, the song is a twenty-first century ballad, from Tricky, who is currently touring in Europe, Asia, and Australia. He will be arriving in America soon.

Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in American Book Review, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Pop Matters, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.