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Monday, May 05, 2003
The Freaky Trigger blog notifies us that Ian Penman has a blog and directs us to an example of his work, which concerns dub and Tricky and Greil Marcus. I can't entirely speak for the worth of the piece, since I've never been able to care that much about dub or reggae (as Jesse knows) but I do care about Tricky, and on that count the piece was very interesting seeing as how it was from the height of Tricky-mania in 1995, just after the release of Maxinquaye. This is nothing against Mr. Penman, who presumably has revised his opinion since then, but after calling it "the most feted, discussed and misunderstood record of the moment," he does a bit of slobbering on the ol' Trickster himself. Obviously Tricky's status in the pantheon has suffered a bit since that initial grope-fest, the reasons for which I'll discuss in a second. But first, check out this:

It is fairly obvious after a few spins through the infected micro-cosmos of Maxinquaye that Tricky knows more than he is letting on. Knows, as in: a secret knowledge he quite rightly fears to name. This silent discourse echoes around Maxinquaye as a kind of rhythmic ebb or evaporation, voices trailing in and out, never settling on one definite past or present: "Confused by different memories/Details of Asian remedies..."

We may read that Tricky shies away from `theorising' about his work, but this may just be the sane response of a man suddenly confronted by the representatives of a music press desperate to slot everything into its lazily reductive `Bristol as the new Seattle' strap-line. Besides which, the opposition won't stand: Maxinquaye is a work of theory. There is nothing theory can say that is not already embedded in this wily, uncanny text. (Tricky even helpfully sings so: "I think ahead of you/I think instead of you..." Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Tricky is unwilling to S-P-E-L-L out to interviewers stuff which he has already toiled long and hard to find the correct way of saying on Maxinquaye. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of certain Gnostic, magickal and African traditions will know that it is considered foolhardy, dangerous even, to spell out to one's inferiors things for which the maker has already found an effective formula.

(hey, have you guessed that this was published in the Wire yet? *cough*)

Aside from the painfully overwrought tone of the selection, what stands out is that Penman seems to expect Tricky to be an absolutely inscrutable presence, some weird black voodoo-god with a Secret Knowledge that White Journalists aren't privy to, instead of a regular guy who sometimes doesn't know quite what he's doing at the time and sometimes does stuff just 'cos he thinks it's cool. (And whose boasts of knowledge are maybe less transcendent and more a nerdy version of b-boy braggadocio.) The only way for someone to live up to the image Penman projects would seem to be for them to be, in fact, mentally ill, which we wouldn't wish on anyone, right, guys? Of course, as it turned out, Tricky went on to make some straight hip-hop albums and do guest bits in a few movies (5th Element, etc.) and so just wasn't mysterious anymore. His critical reception has, I think, suffered accordingly, and the question this begs is: do critics really just value mysteriousness above all? You can explain, for instance, all that "sellout" bullshit as a simple objection to the revelation that an artist is, in fact, somewhat interested in making money (not mysterious! Too banal and material!); "cred" stuff as a reductionary way of saying that an artist no longer has that certain something; "overly slick" as disappointment at the revelation that an artist doesn't record all their material in a shack in the woods; and "insincere" as annoyance that the artist is not, in fact, dumber than the critic and is aware of the implications of their own work, or, worse, that the previous pose that convinced a critic of this mysteriousness was in fact a trick and the critic has been fooled. And why would critics value inscrutability so highly? Why, so they could be more free in their interpretations, of course--critics being weirdly hesitant to ignore an artist's assessment of their own work in the mistaken belief that this is the definitive interpretation, the musician-as-cipher model allows them to more easily assume their own take on a work is at least possible.

Of course, there's the argument that the later albums (Pre-Millennial Tension excepted) were simply not as good, but this simply begs the question of why someone like Penman would have to go to such lengths to justify a great album like Maxinquaye in the first place. If it's just a fanciful interpretation that's fine, but Penman does seem at pains to refer to Tricky as "the Other" repeatedly throughout the piece, and instead of focusing on the impression Tricky creates through the lyrics (a suggestion of Character reinforced by the pseudonym) he chooses to peg the actual person as a Gnostic shaman or some such nonsense. Highbrow critics seem weirdly susceptible to "falling" for musicians who are outwardly weirdoes and freaks, and leaving aside issues of sympathy, there does seem to be a very real danger in assigning critical weight to what essentially amounts to mental instability.

The other weird bit of this piece is about its view of the political song. This is a subject I obviously (given the coupling of subjects on this blog if nothing else) have a primary interest in, and I agree with Penman to a certain extent, particularly in his questioning of Greil Marcus' model of the political musician as someone who outwardly spouts political slogans, i.e. the Clash, Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, etc. It's true that politics is, in fact, a far more complicated and ambiguous field than the classification of musical demagoguery-as-theory would indicate, but Penman then goes on to assert (which he does, were I giving him the benefit of the doubt, simply because he has been assigned to write about Tricky, although there are some self-serving notes there too) that Maxinquaye turns out to be the first example of this more nuanced model of the political song. I disagree on both levels: I don't think it's particularly political in the way he's getting at (and, indeed, is political in the Marcus way with its cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel") and I think there have been a number of examples of the other model throughout pop's history. (Briefly: Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan" and PJ Harvey's "Sheela-Na-Gig" spring to mind.) My idea of a political song is something I've actually given a great deal of thought to, but regrettably its delineation would require more effort than I'm willing to put forth at 4:30 on a Monday, quite frankly. It would have a large component of comedy, though, suffice to say.

(If you're really interested, let me know and I can maybe send you an old essay that approached the subject from the angle of literature.)