Ten years for a new Portishead album may have seemed an interminable wait. But listening to the four albums their Bristol contemporary Tricky cooked up in that time was far more painful.
The creative disintegration of the Bristol Sound's biggest talent under the weight of heavy drug use and paranoia was one of the 1990s' saddest stories. The black hole from which he emitted his fiercely original sounds had swallowed him up. So what a relief, then, that Knowle West Boy is the most focused pop record of Tricky's career.
Named after the Bristol neighbourhood where he grew up, it is a nostalgic return to roots, from the old family photo on the back to the bright bar buzz of opening track "Puppy Toy". "Council Estate" is a bouncing pop affirmation for those still living his old life, inspired by his teenage heroes, The Specials. "Remember, boy, you're a superstar!" he declares, raising people out of the mental murk his old records wallowed in. "C'mon Baby" is hectoring but happy pop, while "Slow" is a funk-rock Kylie cover. Elsewhere, psychedelic phased guitars and mellow jazz sax can be heard. His last record, Vulnerable (2003), similarly attempted to let some light in, but still seemed the product of an uncertain mind. The paranoia is really gone now.
Tricky is instead humbly content to let his asthmatic husk of a voice sit in the background. "Bacative" and "Baligaga" are given over to his Bronx friend Rodigan's raw Jamaican chat, "Joseph" to the titular New York busker. "Cross to Bear" is a chamber-folk meditation on Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, sung by Icelandic friend Hafdis. She is one of four women effectively substituting for Martina Topley-Bird, the muse of his debut Maxinquaye (1995), and mother of his child. "Veronika", named after and sung by its Italian singer, has a plastic, stacatto beat like squeezed breath. Tricky's latest ex, Lubna, joins him for "Past Mistake",his voice shadowing hers as they pick apart their relationship's bitter traces. She stands in for her predecessor on "School Gates", a slide guitar-based acoustic folk song about Tricky meeting the 15-year-old Topley-Bird, and the child they had then. Perverse in theory, it feels warmly accepting.
"Coalition" is the only time Tricky lets his peculiar English lyrics pour out, going "on and on, like Duracell, like Durex..." But there is a vigour to everything he does, where before all was suspicious sloth. If he can rediscover his old intuitive, nocturnal originality, a great middle age beckons for the Tricky Kid. Meanwhile, welcome back.
Pick of the album: "Puppy Toy", "Council Estate", "Past Mistake", "School Gates"Reuse content