For a while there, Tricky was something like a 21st-century Sly Stone, plummeting from summits of genius to pits of creative stagnation. Bafflingly awful records like 2001's Blowback and 2003's Vulnerable found Tricky (aka English producer/mutterer Adrian Thaws) moving away from his strengths. We don't go to Tricky for dreadful covers of the Cure's "The Lovecats" and Nirvana's "Something in the Way," Alanis Morissette and Ed Kowalczyk collabs, and misguided heavy-rock excursions—or we shouldn't, anyway.
It may be hard to believe in 2010, but Tricky was once an innovator. He raised eyebrows and expectations among heads in the mid-'90s for his unique slant on the then nascent triphop genre. On albums like 1995's Maxinquaye, 1996's Pre-Millennium Tension, and 1998's Angels with Dirty Faces, Tricky invested hiphop with unprecedented enervation and vulnerability—two qualities normally shunned in the hypermasculine world of MCs. Tricky's great trick was to invert hiphop's overt machismo and boisterous braggadocio into a complicatedly conflicted, paranoiac cower. His voice typically barely registers as a raspy, deadpan whisper, usually shadowing more demonstrative female vocalists—most rewardingly with Martina Topley Bird and PJ Harvey. He's the poet of "Suffocated Love," the lyricist who makes a mantra out of the line "Can hardly breathe."
With his first three albums, as well as the Nearly God project from 1996, Tricky staked out inventive sonic territory. These works took hiphop's roots in funk, soul, and reggae and then withered them into fascinatingly grotesque facsimiles of same. At their best, Tricky's tracks conjure images of having sex on one's deathbed. The music bears a sensuality that's been ravaged by harrowing thoughts reflecting myriad frailties of mind and body. Even when he's covering bravura rap classics like "Lyrics of Fury" and "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," Tricky can't help making them sound more like obsessive internal monologues than calls to arms.
Tricky's new album, Mixed Race, is a better-than-expected recapitulation of his shtick: melancholy, dread-filled beat noir with the man's riveting croak as comfortingly creepy as ever, sometimes wafting behind morose-diva vox (more of the latter would've been appreciated). It ain't Maxinquaye, but it does prove that Tricky's regained a sense of what made his sound so gripping in the first place. A few tangents from this approach, including the odd Middle Eastern funk diversion "Hakim" and the meh Peter Gunn rip "Murder Weapon," are valiant failures rather than outright disasters. "Kingston Logic"—which bites the robotic chorus flow of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and elements from the Normal's "Warm Leatherette" and James Brown's "Blind Man Can See It"—is just ridiculous enough to be winning. Call Mixed Race a comeback—much better than a Blowback.
Tricky performs with Truckasauras on Fri Dec 17, Neumos, 8 pm, $20, 21+.