The first thing that jumps out of the headphones is that there are some tunes here. After the self-indulgency of some of his earlier work, Tricky seems to have rediscovered some of the songwriting skills that made his debut, Maxinquaye, one of the best albums of the ’90s.
This is a good thing, but sometimes you feel like he’s gone a bit too far back the other way, and while some of his previous work may have strayed a bit too far onto the dark side, Knowle West Boy feels a bit Tricky-lite.
Opening track Puppy Toy is one of the better songs, finding him drawling over a relaxed piano riff and an infectious bassline before the chorus kicks in complete with some unexpected Christina Aguilera-style vocals thanks to collaborator Alex Mills.
Mills is just one of many vocalists on offer here, including a busker who gives his name to the track Joseph, and Veronika, who provides the title of the excellent fourth track, which with its incessant rhythm and slightly unnerving vocals is reminiscent of one of Tricky’s most memorable singles, Black Steel.
As you’d expect from a Tricky album, there’s some musical schizophrenia on offer here with a lot of musical bases covered. He has a successful foray into ragga with Bacative and Baligaga, both with Rodigan on vocals, demonstrating an ability to produce material that works well on a commercial level and maintains a street edge.
However the rocky stuff isn’t as good. C’mon Baby manages to sound like a Gnarls Barkley out-take and his guitar-heavy cover version of Kylie‘s Slow manages to remove all of its sex appeal without replacing it with any other kind of appeal.
We’re introduced to some more female vocalists in the shape of ex-girlfriend Lubna on Past Mistake with its deep rhythms that hark back to the trip-hop days and Icelandic gem Hafdis Huld on the acoustic and delicate Cross To Bear. Both singers acquit themselves brilliantly, but the tracks themselves, while being pleasant enough to listen to, don’t quite pull you in and make you love them.
There’s perhaps a lack of imagination. However, Tricky will suffer from perpetually having any album he releases being compared to his debut, a modern classic which has dated remarkably well, and which he’s not been able to match since.
However, this album feels like it marks the beginning of a return of form, and it’s great to hear his voice again on tunes that don’t make you work to the point of sufferance to get any enjoyment out of. If he can carry on down this path, find reintroduce some heavier, deeper middle ground, Knowle West’s boy still has a lot to offer.