SUFFOCATED. "Can hardly breathe... Can hardly breathe..." This is "Vent," the first song on Tricky's 1996 album Pre-Millennium Tension. We hear the phrase over and over. First Tricky says it, in his raspy, strangulated murmur. Then Martina takes it up, in her high singsong. She repeats the lines, as Tricky whispers them to her. Both singers use the same words, but they don't mean the same things by them. Tricky sounds like a man at the end of his rope. His voice is rough. He suffers, even as he speaks. Martina distances herself from her words, in the very act of saying them. Her tone is plaintive, but also cool and disengaged. There's a misunderstanding here, as there always is between lovers. Intimacy can be a terrifying thing. I want you near me, yet I feel smothered by your closeness. You slay me with your tenderness and care. "I'm the one," Martina sings, "who hides his medicine,/ Watch him stop breathing,/ Watch him bleed." The whole song is a stifled cry of pain. The sound is thick, churning, and dissonant. The singers are buried way down in the mix. It's as if the music itself were suffocating them. Each song on the album is like a wound that never heals. Each creates its own closed landscape of sound. Each tells its own story of baffled desire. The music is built up from simple repeating patterns: wisps of melody or open minor chords. Tricky plays them on his low-fi synthesizer. There are also some samples from other songs. We even hear a few live instruments now and then: a reggae bass, a blues harmonica, a cocktail piano. These sound fragments don't fit together neatly. And Tricky does not attempt to smooth over their conflicts. He simply layers them, one on top of another. The result is a brutal chaos of sound. Cadences go unresolved. Melodies don't finish. Harsh motifs loop in endless replay. Dub echoes ring out against fractured hip-hop rhythms. Feedback and distortion break out everywhere. These songs do not come to any sort of resolution. They do not even alternate chorus and verse. Sometimes they just peter out after a while. Other times, they get more intense as they go along. In either case, they are oddly static. Each song gives voice to a single intense emotion. These emotions do not change. They are not discharged in action. They fester, and turn back upon themselves. On some tracks, the pulse is relentless: all tension and no release. A menacing, backwards bass motif propels "Vent" from beginning to end. It's reinforced by quick flurries of percussion. The atmosphere is dense, bass-heavy, and doom-laden. On the slower songs, in contrast, there isn't much of a beat. In "Bad Things," the music just drifts languidly along. Tricky speaks in a low monotone, slurring and mumbling his words. Martina is nowhere to be heard. An acoustic guitar weaves a lazy blues riff around Tricky's voice. The guitar seems to stutter, stopping and starting fitfully. Its bent notes hang uneasily in the air. This music makes me feel like I've been trapped in some murky underworld. There's no escape, no way forward or back. Tricky's lyrics speak of violence and revenge. But his tone of voice is pained and uncertain. He knows that even his rage works only to entrap him. It's all a pose, an empty display of bravado: "Wanna be a homeboy from the hood,/ Pretend I'm from America..." Is this what it means to be poor, male, and black? The gangsta's rebellion is just a fantasy. But the story's been told that way so many times, that it's hard to imagine things ever being different. Of course, Tricky himself isn't poor any longer. By playing to media images of angry young black men, he has made himself into a star. He speaks of this with snarling sarcasm in "Tricky Kid." It's the closest he comes to American-style rap. The lyrics are clear and upfront. The beat, for once, is straightforwardly funky. And the song is filled with Tricky's boasts and snaps. But something has gone awry. The only thing Tricky can find to boast about is stardom itself. And stardom consists of little more than being envied by others. It's the oldest story in the world: "everybody wants to be naked and famous." Celebrity and personal success mean nothing, for they leave the world exactly the way it was. Any effort to change things is just a waste of time. Nearly all the songs on Pre-Millennium Tension come to this dead end. The one exception, perhaps, is "Makes Me Wanna Die." It's a song about the feeling of paranoid dislocation that sometimes comes from smoking too much pot. Such a state seems almost comforting, compared to what goes on in the other songs. The music is sparse and spacey, unlike anything else on the album. High chords ring out on the guitar, over a relaxed backbeat. Tricky's voice is reduced to the merest whisper. Martina's voice soars, warms up, opens out. Her tone is hesitant, a bit sad; but also laid back and trusting. The world is indifferent, the drug tells her; "you're insignificant." But this is less a threat than a promise. It means letting go of all the pain, and just gently fading away. Hopelessness and loss have never seemed so alluring.
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