Trip Hop Pioneer’s Apocalyptic Return
Adrian Thaws, known by his stage name Tricky, spearheaded the trip-hop movement in Bristol and the UK during the ’90s along with the Wild Bunch, who subsequently became Massive Attack. Tricky’s 1995 solo debut album Maxinquaye became symbolic of the trip-hop sound, with its distorted, moody instrumentals and risqué lyrics. Maxinquaye‘s lo-fi, ambient and hip-hop electronica received widespread critical acclaim and continues to be one of the standout trip hop projects in existence. His efforts to diverge from the trip-hop label pushed onto his shoulders, however, were polarizing. He moved to more punk- or pop-influenced sounds on Blowback and Vulnerable before returning to his roots on 2013’s False Idols.
Tricky’s Ununiform marks his thirteenth studio album. Here, Tricky brings both satiating highlights that are reminiscent of Maxinquaye’s genius and questionably pop-rock influenced cuts that deviate from the gritty textures so adored from his past works. This isn’t to say that all of the more “conventional” tracks on Ununiform are lukewarm: the mysterious and cinematic strings paired Tricky’s breathy, tense delivery on “The Only Way” paint the otherwise simple piano and guitar ballad with melancholy hues of loneliness and vulnerability. Similarly, on what he describes as “Hell Is Round the Corner Part 2,” Tricky expresses how desperately he longs for a woman who he has wronged, albeit futilely.
What separates “The Only Way” from the other less experimental tracks on Ununiform is the nostalgia it is able to evoke: the nod towards “Hell Is Round the Corner” shows just how much the nightmarish mentality and sound of the old Tricky has evolved over the years, lyrically and vocally. The same cannot be said for “Blood of My Blood” or “Running Wild.” The central melodies of these songs are distractingly simplistic, taking away from the idiosyncrasies of Tricky’s complex production. On “Wait for Signal,” its nearly spoken chorus is paired with an even more sparse instrumental, resulting in another lackluster moment on an otherwise adrenaline-filled record.
For instance, “Dark Days” layers lo-fi, rattling guitars over warped synths and energetic drums to create a cyber-gothic blend of emo rock and trance. “Armor” explodes into a synth-backed and bouncy climax during its chorus with self-assured lyrics and a sultry vocal performance by Terra Lopez. The track builds and builds upon itself to embody the excitement felt when one is finally ready to move on. On the criminally short, but jaw-dropping “Bang Boogie,” Russian rapper Smoky Mo spits tongue twisters at lightning-speed over a grimy electronic instrumental with trip-hop tendencies. “Same As It Ever Was” switches up so many times that it feels like entering into different rooms from a hazy and claustrophobic rabbit hole.
All of the energy on these electronic tracks are abruptly cut off by the slow burners that follow them, leaving listeners disoriented, perhaps intentionally so. What makes Ununiform so unsettling is how it insists on moving back and forth between these vastly different soundscapes. Tricky captures the notion of feeling and being lost on “When We Die,” repeatedly chanting “Where do I go?” or “Where do we go?” over a melancholy hum of an instrumental. Though many of the complex and fast-paced songs outshine their minimal and slower counterparts, Tricky successfully captures, through the arrangement of Ununiform, the displacement felt in a modernist and absurd dystopia of a world that is constantly shifting between extremes.