Rarely comes close to reaching its full potential.
In the mid-’90s, an urban renaissance was quickly unfolding in England through the lens of trip-hop. Dusty drum machines and breaks, distorted and torn about by samplers and other studio trickery, latched on to jazzy basslines (also frequently culled from other records) and wispy vocals, forming sparse and uncompromising soundscapes. Perhaps the genre’s true star, Tricky deftly navigated the field, pushing his innovative music to the masses via his daring debut album, Maxinquaye. His voice, a damp and eerie haze, danced devilishly with his partner and vocal muse, Martina Topley-Bird, as their real-life romance bled into their already deeply seductive and sensual music.
It is surprising, then, that “When We Die,” their reunion song after a decade and a half apart, is so faceless. In fact, the entirety of Tricky’s latest, Ununiform, feels similarly so. While it’s moody atmospherics conjure visages of the Tricky of the past, his latest not only lacks that forward thinking but also any fully realized songs. An intriguing listen at first, Ununiform quickly loses steam with repeated listens, producing a particularly hollow aftertaste.
Most of Ununiform feels like a whisper, short-lived and sometimes hard to make out. Things start out promising with the intimate “Wait for Signal,” as a quick drop into a mechanical beat is surrounded by lush guitars. “It’s Your Day” revels in booming synth throb and trap snares, its brooding and dark vocals pushed to the front with a particularly heavy low end, creating a queasy, unsettling effect. There are hooks, but their catchiness is frequently drowned in the album’s overall downbeat sound.
Instead, the most engaging elements of the album come down to Tricky and his unmistakable delivery and flow. The emotionally bare “The Only Way,” pairs his forlorn refrain of “Be my friend/ Come back again/ The only way/ This is the only way” with 007-esque strings adding a classy and elegant effect.
So when Russian rapper Smoky Mo takes lead on the short “Bang Boogie,” there is a palpable sense of confusion. Never mind that it follows two other oddities that rely entirely on guest vocalists: the completely out of place disco strut of “Armor” and a sparse cover of Hole’s “Doll.” Individually judged, these are not bad songs — Tricky’s cover of “Doll” is accurate to the source material while simultaneously obtaining a sense of modernity — but in the context of Ununiform they feel carelessly tossed around. While Tricky may flaunt his production prowess, a string of random but very similar sounding guest vocalists prevent any sense of cohesion.
In fact, Tricky’s vocals are almost entirely absent from the album’s latter half until the aforementioned, “When We Die.” Bird sounds devastatingly brilliant, Tricky’s menacing whisper still a potent match for her silky-smooth vocals, but a tepid arrangement brings things down to a dull thud rather than the sultry glide one might expect. It doesn’t help that the duo’s performance sounds distressingly absent of any emotional grounding, as if Bird recorded the chorus, emailed it in and was subsequently copy-and-pasted a handful of times throughout the song. What could have been a brilliant reunion comes off as more of a long-distance sigh.
Ununiform is an album with much promise, but rarely comes close to reaching its full potential. Its hazy, drifting sound may be suitable for those aimlessly stoned nights, but the closer you listen, the more disjointed and haphazard everything sounds. One gets the feeling that, while ideas may come quickly to Tricky, nowadays they rarely move beyond a half-formed state. At just a hair short of 40 minutes, it still proves to be a tedious listen.