Sometimes love strangles you slowly. You can't get close enough, at first. You'd crawl under his skin, but you settle for wearing his shirt around the house. You don't shower after sex because you want to smell like her all day. Then you notice you've adopted his slang, his mannerisms, and it creeps you out. We're becoming Akbar and Jeff, you think. The apartment seems to shrink with each passing day. She's suffocating me, you complain to your friends. I've got to escape. Then you kick him out and suddenly he seems attractive again. You putter around the empty bedroom longing for the sound of that nervous cough that normally makes you want to throttle him. Only death will set us free, you grumble dramatically. So you simply stay put.
“Will you spend your life with me/ And stifle me?” Tricky and Martine sing on Maxinquaye (Island), Tricky's brilliantly eerie debut. The duo pose tied together in pictures. In one photo, they stand face to face, their hands bound so that a noose will choke their necks if they try to break free. In another, they lean intimately together as if they're about to kiss, but hold knives behind each other's back, ready to plunge them in.
But it's stranger than that: Tricky and Martine are not lovers. Tricky says that would be “too intimate.” Instead, the eccentric British musician and the soft-spoken teenage diva share a grubby London apartment in a state of perpetual sexual tension. On Tricky's part, at least. Martine merely tolerates him.
The 27-year-old producer and rapper has been somewhat obsessed with Martine for four years, since he first spied her ditching school to smoke when she was just a Lolita of 15. She's his inspiration, he says, and his apprentice. The artist/muse relationship is typically parasitic, the artist leeching onto an idealized — usually female — vision, projecting his own desires onto her, often manipulating her or draining her dry. But Tricky takes it one step further on Maxinquaye: He wants to literally become his love object — and turns Martine into him in the process. It's a disturbing synthesis of attraction and revulsion — and beyond mortal closeness.
“Your eyes resemble mine,” he and Martine croon together. She often sings from a male point of view — “I'm a black man”; “I'll fuck you in the ass/ Just for a laugh” — while Tricky sits back and lets her “suck you in,” his head “between her knees.” In the liner notes, they pose as a bridal couple: Martine in top hat and tails, a smirking Tricky in a white gown and frilly bonnet.
Tricky's music sounds even weirder than his penchant for soul-snatching. Rising out of the Bristol scene that generated Massive Attack and Portishead, Maxinquaye is the claustrophobic backdrop to a “Suffocated Love.” A hypnotic mŽlange of ambient, hip hop, rock, dub, techno and soul, Tricky's music is both sinister and erotic. And unclassifiable, though it's been tagged as both the “Bristol sound” and “trip hop,” a term Tricky loathes. All it shares with the spacey, dance-oriented sounds found on compilations like The Trip Hop Test (part one) (Moonshine) is Quaalude-dosed break-beats. “Hell Is Round the Corner” uses the same Isaac Hayes sample that backbones Portishead's “Glory Box,” but Tricky funks it up with Martine's soft, sexy voice and his own sleepy-headed raps, then coats it with a barrage of ghostly sound effects like muffled breathing and a madman's yowl.
A sense of spliff-induced paranoia links Maxinquaye's 12 eclectic tracks together. Songs like “Pumpkin” and “Overcome,” a reworking of Massive Attack's “Karma Coma,” throb like dance club fare; “Black Steel” is a metallic cover of Public Enemy's “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (with Martine in drag as Chuck D); and “Strugglin'” is the sound of, well, Tricky having a nervous breakdown in his bedroom. “Pain makes me strong,” he mumbles as a leaky faucet drips, chairs creak and a gun is repeatedly cocked. For seven long minutes.
“My music is mutant, that's all,” Tricky says during a phone interview from a German hotel room. “I'm ushering in my own mutant age of evolution.”
“I'm very violent in my mind though I'm not at all violent in my life. I think of all these horrible things I want to do to people, but I can't take it to the street because it wouldn't do me no good. I feel like there's always someone after what's mine. The music is my revenge on people because I can't kill them.”
In one sense, Tricky is self-consciously batty in that inimitable British club-kid way, strutting around London in his pajamas, giving outrageous quotes. He's been popularized as a diehard nut case in the British press, though he disagrees with such descriptions. “People call me freaky and weird because they don't like me but they don't have the bollocks to just say it — that I'm arrogant and a bit of a wanker,” he says.
But Tricky's early life was enough to warp anyone. Maxinquaye is named after his mother, who hung herself when he was four years old. He was raised by an uncle in a rough area of Bristol; after he died, Tricky looked up the father he had never met in the phone book. He ended up what he calls “a naughty, naughty boy,” hanging out with the neighborhood toughs, eventually detained at Her Majesty's pleasure for “forgery of the Crown.” He found direction when he started rapping at parties and met up with the Wild Bunch, the posse of DJs and musicians that ruled the Bristol scene and spawned Massive Attack. Three years later he has collaborated with that band, released an underground smash (“Aftermath”) and signed a special deal with Island that allows him to record with any label.
If Maxinquaye struggles like a tumbleweed across a freshly tarred road, chalk it up to Tricky's conflicted “Gypsy mentality.” He explains, “I get claustrophobic staying in one city. I have to keep moving, changing. I need to be on my own quite a bit.” His music is the sound of him trying to stick around for a while, to lose himself in loving someone else even though he feels like he's drowning.
“Love is a matter of confusion for me,” Tricky says. “I'm extremely cynical about it. I don't even think it exists sometimes. The only time I can believe in it is on my records.”
Tricky opens for PJ Harvey Fri, May 19, at the Warfield in S.F.; call (510) 762-