TRICKY has a problem. Two years ago, he sounded like nothing else on earth. Then he released his awe-inspiring debut LP, Maxinquaye. Now everything else sounds like him. He started off as a dazzling alternative to retro guitar pop, only to become the unwilling inspiration for trip hop, a style now just as pitifully generic. Itís a sorry atmosphere into which to release a new album.
   Nearly God, a recent set of collaborations, tantalisingly suggested that Tricky still had plenty of brilliant if not completely realised ideas. The title also hinted that reverse-egomania - fuelled by disgust at unstinting praise and overly sincere flattery - was eating away at the heart of his muse. Pre-Millenium Tension appears to have been conceived in reaction to the last 22 months. Itís impossible to judge entirely on its own merits, when it so violently refuses to stand on them.
    The first thing you notice about PMT (aside from the fact that Tricky hasnít altogether abandoned his sense of humour) is how harsh it is. Now that his sound has become the basis for coffee-table functionalism endowed with cheap credibility, perhaps heís determined to create something so demanding, so punishing, that nobody will be able to copy it for fun or profit. Avant-garde  isnít in it; some of the beats and loops are so far-flung that the garde doesnít see them for dust. This is that Difficult Second Album, alright. Difficult for the listener.
   An exception is Tricky Kid. Calling up a previous incarnation from the earliest days of Massive Attack, it rollicks along with fabulously splenetic lyrical hyperbole. Amid such claustrophobic surroundings, itís as if a window has suddenly been flung open - to admit a burst of acid rain. Tricky Kid is just one of PMTís wry distortions of rap cliché. Bad Dream and Lyrics Of Fury echo 
Black Steelís neat ruse of using vocalist Martina, more crucial to Trickyís 
music than ever, as an incongruous mouthpiece. She turns the former into subverted Gangsta-ism and the latter into a parody of Old Skool hip hop.
   Which begs the question: if it werenít Tricky, wouldnít we assume that the clichés are exactly what they seem? I donít think so. These are bizarre, sprained songs by any standards. Makes Me Wanna Die, with its direct references to the pitfalls of Trickyís particular kind of success, is profoundly and unironically bitter. Ghetto Youth, its murky vocal incomprehensible to anyone not fluent in patois, is almost as sinister as the cancerous My Evil Is Strong, which reads like a curse, and Bad Things, which simply feels like one.
   The last album by a major artist to sound this bleak and disaffected was New Orderís Movement. Thatís not to suggest Pre-Millenium Tension is tortuous or unlistenable, although you have to suspect itís not through lack of trying. Maybe Tricky, attempting to make an album not even a devotee could love, has been foiled by his own sense of invention. Maybe heís simply made the best album he could given his current state of mind. Or maybe the jokes and twists are intentional. Whether you choose to analyse it or not, PMT is another astonishing record - not a great one, but a very good, very awkward and very strange one, closer in spirit to the likes of Scott Walkerís excellent, unfathomable Tilt than to anything even vaguely trip-hoppy. You wonít be able to play it to friends for the pleasure of watching their jaws drop, as I spent months doing with Maxinquaye. Youíll need all the patience you can muster simply to hear it on your own. Stick with it. Itís worth it.

© David Bennun