After appearing on Massive Attack’s groundbreaking first two albums, Tricky eventually found himself out of the Bristol-based loop during some down and out times. Fortunately, Tricky regrouped by recruiting teenage songstress Martina Topley-Bird and striking out on his own with this classic debut album. Martina’s icily seductive singing, which never rises above a whisper, is an essential component to a haunted, hypnotic album that’s heavy on hallucintory changes of moods. Songs such as “Overcome,” “Hell Is Around the Corner,” “Pumpkin” (featuring Alison Goldfrapp on vocals), and “Suffocated Love” dreamily revel in their shadowy atmospherics, but the straight up hip-hop of “Brand New You’re Retro” and a metallic cover of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” (simply titled “Black Steel” here) show off an edgier side, as the album expertly mixes together ethereal and abrasive sounds. Other highlights include the clangy “Ponderosa,” whose lyrics (“I drown myself in sorrow, until I wake up tomorrow”) perfectly encapsulated the feelings of frustrated ennui and isolation that Tricky experienced, the groovy, head bobbin’ hit single “Aftermath,” and “Abbaon Fat Track,” which matches sultry music to lyrics (“fuck you in the ass, just for a laugh”) that are anything but sexy. Tricky’s druggy British raps mingle with Martina’s soul diva stylings though a purposely muddy, multi-layered mix, and his seamy, sexually agressive lyrics and some often-sinister sonic touches break though the gorgeous backdrops, making the pervading impression one of menace mingled with beauty. It’s quite a tour-de-force, as Maxinquaye provides the listener with an intoxicating wash of bleak but beguiling sounds that are perfect for late night, pot-enhanced musings. The dark, despairing emotions on display here have been likened to a ‘90s update of Sly & the Family Stone’s disturbing 1971 classic There’s A Riot Goin’ On, but the album's sinister but sensuous melange of styles also got Tricky compared to fellow Bristol bands such as Portishead and, of course, Massive Attack (whose “Karmacoma” he rewrites as “Overcome”). As such, Tricky was placed under the “trip-hop” umbrella, a term he despises and one that seems fairly limiting a moniker for someone who on the same album samples artists as diverse as Shakespeare's Sister, Smashing Pumpkins, the Chantels, and Isaac Hayes, among others. Of course, it didn’t help that Tricky used the same Isaac Hayes sample for “Hell Is Around The Corner” that Portishead had used for “Glory Box,” but the fact that both songs are amazing makes it a moot point to me, and Maxinquaye ultimately stands alone as a singular ‘90s statement. My only minor criticism of the album is that, like much producer-based music, most of these songs are somewhat repetitive and overly long, as is the album itself. Supposedly Tricky has never matched the quality of Maxinquaye on subsequent follow-ups, the best of which by most accounts is his second album, Pre-Millennium Tension. Not that I’d know, mind you; after all, it’s been eight years and I’m still trying to unravel all the dark secrets of this innovative album, whose dense sound collages and creative merging of r&b (“You Don’t” is basically a straight up r&b song) and rap seemingly contains a bottomless well of mysteries. So dig in, why don’t you? Maxinquaye is well-worth the long ride, troubling and baffling (and beautiful) though it may be.
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