Understated Classics #17: Nearly God by Nearly God (Tricky)

Sit back and let it happen, / Let us take your time away.

Nearly God is Tricky’s second album, which was released under a different name either because Island rejected it as the follow-up to Maxinequaye or because it came too quickly after and Tricky just wanted it released. I had this album before Maxinequaye because back then it wasn’t as easy to go back and catch up with albums that you had missed as it is now. I had bought enough singles to get the postcards through the post that advertised Nearly God (this, kids, is what we had before e-mail and liking things on Facebook) and when I heard Poems for the first time on the radio I was incredibly excited.

The album is largely composed of collaborations and it is possible to think of Martina here as another contributor, she certainly doesn’t dominate the sound of the album like she does on Maxinequaye. There are some pretty big names: Terry Hall, Bjork, Neneh Cherry and Alison Moyet. Even better at no point does the production, stripped way back from the first album to an almost demo-like quality, get dwarfed by or threaten to underserve the contributions of the guest vocalists. One of Bjork’s donations is the vocal from She’s Been Flirting Again off Post and it adds to the remix/homespun feel of the album.

The first track is a cover of Siouxie and the Banshees’ B-side Tattoo. I only heard the original while writing this post but it’s obvious that Tricky has slowed it down to about half its original speed but has otherwise remained quite faithful to it. In fact the original reminds me a lot of Risingson by Massive Attack (Mezzanine, 1997) and while that song is based on a Velvet Underground sample, Souixie and the Banshees are cited as inspirations for the Mezzanine sound.

Next up is Poems, in which Tricky, Terry Hall and Martina Topley-Bird each get a verse to deliver that ends with the line “you promised me poems” — with the resulting song stretching over seven minutes. All this happens in between a dragging beat and some beautiful guitar playing. It all seemed very profound when I was sixteen and now I can’t be sure if it has improved with age or not because it just raises the hackles anyway — I still remember all the words.

Come Together with Neneh Cherry was also featured on her Man album and it kind of shows up as having slightly better production values than the other tracks here. It does sound a bit like it has fallen off Maxinequaye. Tricky recorded quite a few tracks with Neneh Cherry around this time, as many as ten apparently. The only other one that I have heard is Had You In Me (a B-side to one of the many singles from Man) which is actually quite similar to Together Now but with a lyric containing 100% more innuendo.

Keep Your Mouth Shut is the aforementioned track to which she leant the vocals You’ve Been Flirting Again (and the improv sections of The Modern Things as well). This is swirled up with a crushing beat, what is probably Tricky’s harshest and most distorted vocal performance and a sample of Das EFX: “When the homies think I’m stuck up / I tell ‘em shut the fuck up”. I hated this track when I first heard it (and You’ve Been Flirting Again was not one of my favourite Bjork songs back then either) but I think it has actually improved with age — it’s like a proto-_Money Greedy_.

Yet another pseudonym (Starving Souls) was used to release I Be The Prophet as a single and I wish I had bought it as it is quite valuable now. It’s a simple single verse song chanted over a sparse yet driven musical arrangement consisting mainly of a string riff and synth noises. Like Poems the vocal is in three parts: Tricky then Martina and then both together. I think that this track does more than any other to show how well their voices complemented one another, it is definitely one of the best tracks Tricky ever produced.

Make A Change is basically Alison Moyet wailing the blues while Tricky constructs a beat in the background that sounds like he’s repeatedly snapping a tree trunk in half. True to the pattern of the entire album, it’s arranged is repetitive and pared right back to ensure that the focus is right there on the fantastic vocal performance. I don’t have enough Alison Moyet records really — I can remember having a greatest hits tape out from the library when I was 15 and playing it to death.

Next up is another cover version but unlike Tattoo I am not the least bit curious about the original because the version of Black Coffee on Nearly God is so good. As usual, it rests on the phenomenal vocal talents of Martina but there is also a real dramatic tension given to the proceedings by the clipped piano samples that underpin the verses. For a supposed side project album it is amazing that Nearly God is stuffed with songs that are this good — hence its inclusion in the understated classics.

I can remember freaking out my mum by walking down the stairs one morning rattling Tricky’s vocals on Bubbles. I think she told me that if I did it in public then people would think that I was going crazy. Given that at that time I wasn’t sure yet if Tricky wasn’t completely crazy anyway, I took this as a compliment on my facsimile of his delivery. Bubbles is of course a fairly basic Tricky track (with the addition of more Terry Hall) and many iterations of it would feature on B-sides through the years.

I Sing For You features Cath Coffey who sang with the Stereo MCs, a band who were famous at the time for disappearing off the face of the earth — much like The Avalanches today I suppose. The song is okay but you can’t help but think as it drags out over more than six minutes that Martina might have done more with the song. Being a sleepy ballad means it does bring the album back to earth somewhat and things lurch back awake a bit with Yoga. Bjork is back cooing away indistinctly (except for a bit where she clearly sings “Don’t fuck with me”) and a repetitive guitar loop rattles away in the background. It’s probably the most abstract song here but both Bjork and Tricky have done better.

Nearly God proves that side projects can be worth tracking down and listening to. One could argue that the next album that Tricky released (Pre Millennium Tension, even the title is half hearted at best) was probably more deserving of being shelved under a different name. Nevertheless there’s no harm done, it is pretty easy to find a copy and you’ll be getting your hands on a hidden gem if you do.

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· Music, Understated Classics, Tricky, Nearly God, Twelve, Electronic

⇠ Ted Hughes, April Birthday

Reading list, mid-April 2012 ⇢