Hell Is Round the Corner
Maxinquaye: The Brilliance of Tricky and a Seminal Debut Album
THERE is a lot of buzz around Tricky…
IN THIS PHOTO: Tricky in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
because his autobiography, Hell is Round the Corner, is released today (31st October). Even if you are unaware of the Bristol-born producer’s start and career, the memoir makes for a fascinating read. Tricky is one of the most compelling and influential names in music. Not only did Tricky help Massive Attack shape their 1991 masterpiece, Blue Lines, but the man himself created his own masterpiece five years later: the epic debut, Maxinquaye. The album was released on 20th February, 1995 and, as it is twenty-five in a few months, I wanted to investigate this spectacular album and the man who made it. Tricky’s more recent album, Ununiform, of 2017 is a fantastic work and shows he has plenty of brilliance and inventiveness left in the bones. I will come to Tricky’s debut soon enough. Before that, I would compel people to look back at the music of Tricky, because it is sensational. I am going to grab his autobiography today, because I am fascinated to know about this incredible producer and artist. Tricky does not give many interviews but, recently, he did speak with The Guardian and talked about his memoir/autobiography. He discussed loss – his mother died when he was a child – and the struggles he endured on the path to success. He is still performing live and his shows are a mix of the powerful and remote; Tricky remaining largely in the shadows, but providing this enormously memorable experience.
I will move on but, before I do, I wanted to bring in an exert from The Guardian’s interview, where Tricky discussed addiction; the men and women in his life and his childhood:
“The book’s title – Hell Is Round the Corner – is taken from a track on Maxinquaye, and it aptly describes a life in which violence and tragedy have lurked beside every success story. Born Adrian Thaws and raised in Bristol by his grandmother and aunties, Tricky had a happy, but unconventional, childhood: food often consisted of rabbit stew sourced from the family’s poaching expeditions; criminality was an accepted way of life.
Without his musical gift, Tricky’s prospects would not have looked bright: “Where I come from, a lot of people are either on drugs, in prison or dead,” he says. His uncles were gangsters and Tricky grew up noticing how people would treat him differently whenever their names were dropped: his food in a curry house would be upgraded; the atmosphere in a pub might suddenly change.
“Once, I asked my auntie why everyone was scared of my uncle Martin,” he says. “She said: ‘Because if he says he’s going to cut your throat, he’ll cut your throat.’”
The men in his life were tough guys, but the women who raised him were tougher. He saw his grandmother and aunties street-fight like his uncles (“The fighting was more vicious, cos men care more about their ego”) and observed them being strong in other ways, too: running the household and feeding the family while the men were away doing time.
“I’ve a kinship with women,” he says. “That’s why I’ve always put women in strong positions in music.”
Topley-Bird was the most important of these. He met her by sheer luck in about 1992 – she had been singing with schoolfriends outside his house. A few years later, they became a couple and had Mazy together; the relationship didn’t last, but they continued to collaborate musically on several more albums”.
Because Tricky was not given a lot of responsibility and input in Massive Attack, there was a sense of desire and anger building up. It is understandable that, for one as passionate and ambitious as Tricky, there was this energy inside that was not being fostered by the Bristol Trip-Hop group. I am not sure how Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird found one another – the two were in a relationship and had a daughter together, Mina Topley-Bird, who died earlier this year -, but it was clear Topley-Bird was the spark that was required for Tricky. He knew her vocals would add weight and direction to his lyrics. Like a lot of great albums, Maxinquaye had a pretty modest start. Tricky signed with 4th & B’way Records in 1993; he put together Maxinquaye at his London home studio. That sense of homely and modest betrays a record that sounds personal, yes, but also incredible wide-ranging, powerful and universal. Almost twenty-five years after its release, Maxinquaye is still giving up its secrets and resonating. With Martina Topley-Bird and vocalists such as Alison Goldfrapp, the record a lot of powerful female input; voices that give his songs a clash of beauty, passion and electricity. Maybe it goes back to Tricky’s upbringing and the role women played; maybe it was more of an aesthetic choice – I think Martina Topley-Bird, especially, helps give the album so much clout and nuance. With genres like Reggae, Soul; Rock and Techno mixing with one another, Maxinquaye is a cocktail of sounds and textures. It always sounds commanding and never loses focus.
Exploring subjects such as drug culture, cultural decline and the influence of his late mother, Maxine Quaye, Tricky’s debut never shies away from reality. It is a pretty hard listen at times and provides little in the way of real fun or romance. That is not to say Maxinquaye lacks beauty and lightness. There is this incredible juxtaposition and unity of darker and lighter shades; beauty and intensity entwined and somehow harmonious. One reason why I have a great respect for albums like Maxinquaye, is because they tackled some pretty weighty subjects. Romantic dysfunction and mistrust had many assuming a Freudian link (given the influence of Tricky’s mother); it is clear Tricky was deeply inspired by his mother and was writing from a female perspective – one reason why Martina Topley-Bird was chosen as a vocalist is to give authenticity to his lyrical style and voice. Whilst Maxinquaye does explore relationship struggles and frustrations, tracks such as Ponderosa and Hell Is Round the Corner are influenced by Tricky’s use of cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. Following Tricky’s departure from Massive Attack, he became more and more dependent on drugs. The stream of consciousness lyrics and frightening visions on some of the album’s tracks come from Tricky who, because of his drug use, was experiencing paranoia, delusions and mental instability. If one did not know about Tricky’s substance abuse and difficult past, maybe the songs would not seem as potent and emotional.
PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Rider
It is amazing to hear such a fluid, bold and disciplined album, given the struggles and anxiety Tricky was living with whilst creating the album. I do not think we will ever get to the bottom of an album that keeps on flowering and providing new layers the more you listen. Contemporary and retrospective reviews for Maxinquaye were enormously positive – I am not sure whether it received a review that was anything less than awestruck! There were artists like Massive Attack and Portishead (fellow Bristol acts) releasing these incredible Trip-Hop albums (although Portishead would hate that genre label!) – Portishead released their debut, Dummy, in 1994 and Massive Attack released Protection the same year. It is clear there was this strong scene and community that was offering an alternative to the mainstream at the time – this was the era of Britpop, after all. Maxinquaye, in my view, is more extraordinary and enduring than the work of Portishead and Massive Attack. It has that personal relevance that gives it an extra level. AllMusic provided their take on Maxinquaye:
“Once they're there, Maxinquaye offers untold treasures. There is the sheer pleasure of coasting by on the sound of the record, how it makes greater use of noise and experimental music than anything since the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy. Then, there's the tip of the hat to PE with a surreal cover of "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," sung by Martine and never sounding like a postmodernist in-joke.
Other references and samples register subconsciously -- while Isaac Hayes' "Ike's Rap II" flows through "Hell Is Around the Corner" and the Smashing Pumpkins are even referenced in the title of "Pumpkin," Shakespear's Sister and the Chantels slip by, while Michael Jackson's "Bad" thrillingly bleeds into "Expressway to Your Heart" on "Brand New You're Retro." Lyrics flow in and out of consciousness, with lingering, whispered promises suddenly undercut by veiled threats and bursts of violence. Then, there's how music that initially may seem like mood pieces slowly reveal their ingenious structure and arrangement and register as full-blown songs, or how the alternately languid and chaotic rhythms finally compliment each other, turning this into a bracing sonic adventure that gains richness and resonance with each listen. After all, there's so much going on here -- within the production, the songs, the words -- it remains fascinating even after all of its many paths have been explored (which certainly can't be said of the trip-hop that followed, including records by Tricky). And that air of mystery that can be impenetrable upon the first listen certainly is something that keeps Maxinquaye tantalizing after it's become familiar, particularly because, like all good mysteries, there's no getting to the bottom of it, no matter how hard you try”.
One only need to look ta a few sample reviews to see how hard the album hit; how incredible it sounded years after its release. This review highlights the sheer variety and wonder of Maxinquaye:
“Not many artists have attempted to cover Public Enemy songs and one listen to 'Black Steel' will tell you why: how do you go about covering a rap song without turning out a parody or novelty record? Answer: you truncate the song lyric, get Maxine to twist her way around the words and drag in a Manchester speed-metal group for cut-up purposes. The effect is startling, especially when 'Hell Is Round The Corner' follows by taking the opposite direction into crackling, minor-key blues. When guitars finally come back into the mix, as on 'Brand New You're Retro', the central riff is so disfigured and energetic and screwed-up that you feel you're experiencing something new.
Self-hatred and poisonous relationships also co-exist in 'Maxinquaye"s patchwork quilt. On 'Pumpkin' these negative attributes take the form of Tricky's self-absorbed monologue, contrasted against Alison Goldfrapp's wordless entreaties and set to a mid-tempo stroll. More disturbingly, 'Abbaon Fat Tracks' takes on the mantle of a package of insults, while 'Suffocated Love' touches on a complicated S&M relationship, with Tricky's skewered logic to the fore. Something's not quite right in his mind, but then, as he insists on the avant-garde, unsettling, 'Strugglin' - the one song that teeters on self-indulgence - he's saner than most people.
'You Don't' shows Tricky can be buoyant, bouncy and irresistible, but it's left to the closing 'Feed Me' to finally spot hope on the horizon after the storm, as Maxine takes a vocal tour of England and meditates on the meaning of freedom. As the last note echoes off into the ether, you know you've been through a remarkable experience; 'Maxinquaye' is one of those rare benchmark LPs that reveals new layers with each listen, but never fully offers up its secrets. Literally, a hard act to follow”.
Maxinquaye helped shape the landscaper of Hip-Hop and Electronica; it is seen as one of the most influential Trip-Hop albums ever recorded and it is clear this mighty album has left its mark on the music scene. Although Tricky would go on to record other terrific works, I don’t think he was ever as spellbinding as he was on his debut – that is no slight on him; such is the importance of Maxinquaye.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mustafah Abdulaziz
It is one of those albums that you need to listen to; to explore and let it carry you away. When it turns twenty-five next year, there will be a lot of celebration and tribute. I am sure new ears will discover it and, as big works by Massive Attack and Portishead have turned twenty-five, I wonder whether we might see a Trip-Hop revival. Albums like Maxinquaye have filtered into other genres and inspired scores of artists, yet there has not been a full-on revival. It would be interesting to see whether that might happen. Go and grab a copy of Maxinquaye if you can (or stream it), and familiarise yourself with this remarkable work. Tricky is a true icon, and make sure you pick up his memoir as well. There are few out there as pioneering, fascinating and strong as Tricky. I hope we see many more albums from him, and he enjoys a lot more years in music. I remember witnessing Maxinquaye back in the 1990s and not really having a frame of reference – maybe Portishead and Massive Attack provided a cushion, but Maxinquaye is in a league of its own. I was amazed then…and I am still awed now. Experience truly a magnificent album from…
AN incredible artist and innovator.