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THIS IS A brilliant record: densely layered, full of barely controlled nervous energy, paranoid under surveillance, at times more intimate than you’d wish – like an eavesdropped conversation between estranged lovers. Extrapolating from the intensely personal to the universal, Maxinquaye functions as a emotional litmus paper – blue for deep, dysfunctional depression (“brain wants me to”), red for transforming anger.
There is great ambition here. Maxinquaye is a definitive statement about what it feels like to be an outsider in Britain: like the best pop, it operates as a parallel communications system. Here is a different language to the tainted speech of news and politics: “Distortion is the English disaster.” Here you can find the emotions that lie under the statistics: “I can’t breathe and I can’t see. TV moves too fast; I refuse to understand.”
The pace is slow, drugged, spacey; the dominant voice is not Tricky but the 19-year-old Martina – who half sings, half raps in a whisper against which Tricky insinuates random phrases – “switch on, switch off” – and plentiful aphorisms: “self-preservation keeps the crowd alive”; “the illusion of confusion”: “all around the world, brainwashed with the cheapest”. Throughout, there are fragments of conversation: ellipses of thought.
Sometimes they work off each other, most notably on ‘Suffocated Love’, when Martina sings against Tricky’s insistent rap: “Will you spend your life with me/And stifle me?” When Martina lets rip on Pumpkin, she reveals a surprisingly soulful voice. Maxinquaye blurs identity, perception and gender: so much so that when Martina flatly states, “I’ll fuck you in the ass/Just for a laugh”, the shock is entirely within the record’s own logic.
Tricky is more liable to emerge from his confusion with a truth attack: “How do you like yourself? You don’t know yourself!” But a sugar pill sweetens bitter confrontation: a sudden giggle, or a sample that takes your breath away with its audacity – the needle skips that rip through ‘Strugglin’‘ for instance. The overall sound is sparse, based on percussive, almost gamelan textures, over which are slipped perceptual tricks, like the alarm noise on ‘You Don’t’, the high register vocal stutters on ‘Feed Me’.
Of the 12 tracks here, five have already been released: single one, ‘Aftermath’; single two, ‘Ponderosa’, with the lines of 1994 – “The place where I stand/Gives way to liquid lino/Underneath the weeping willow/Lies a weeping wino”; three versions of ‘Overcome’ – a reworking of Tricky’s Massive collaboration, ‘Karmacoma’. In addition, ‘Hell Is Around The Corner’ takes the same Isaac Hayes sample as ‘Glory Box’, but, where Portishead concentrate on the internal of emotion and love, Tricky is out there, in a hostile world: “the constant struggle ensures my insanity”.
Weaving through the gaps in the social structure, Tricky and Martina have come up with a masterpiece, a survival guide no less. They pose the question – “How can I be sure in a world that keeps constantly changing?” – and, electronically shape-shifting, give the answer.
© Jon Savage, 1994
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