“This book starts with my mother’s suicide. If I had known that it would end with my daughter’s suicide, you wouldn’t be reading this now.”
This is how the last chapter of Tricky’s autobiography, Hell is Round the Corner, begins. Released in October 2019, six months after his daughter Mazy Mina Topley-Bird died, the autobiography is the first deep and revealing insight into Tricky’s world.
The poet-producer, born in Bristol as Adrian Thaws, had just begun work on his 14th studio album when he heard about his daughter’s death. He would post on Facebook, “It feels like I’m in a world that doesn’t exist, knowing nothing will ever be the same again. No words or text can really explain, my soul feels empty.” Tricky was staring down the barrel of the worst grief imaginable, a feeling he was not unfamiliar with, having lost his mother at the age of four.
An early loss
The first chapter of Tricky’s autobiography starts with: “My first memory is seeing my mom in a coffin, when I was four years old. That definitely left a mark on me. You can say I was destined to make dark music after that.”
The book makes clear that Tricky has spent most of his young life trying to process the early loss of his mother Maxine Quaye. This fed into his 1995 debut Maxinquaye, the album that catapulted him to fame.
As Tricky reveals, it was only after completing the recording of Maxinquaye that he learnt his mother had been a poet. “There was obviously no opportunity for her to go anywhere with her writing,” he writes. He begins to realise he has become a conduit for his mother’s words. “That was my beginning. If she’d not killed herself I couldn’t have written any of that early music. I certainly couldn’t have written any of the lyrics. I felt that she was writing through me. I’ve realised that many of my lyrics are written from a female perspective.”
This declaration from Tricky makes the listener reconsider songs like Broken Homes from 1998 album Angels With Dirty Faces. “Those men will break your bones. Don’t know how to build stable homes,” opines PJ Harvey over a typically sparse loop with stuttering percussion from Tricky. It also begins to explain the publicity images for Maxinquaye of Tricky in a wedding dress and singer Martina Topley-Bird wearing a suit, and why so much of Tricky’s art involves collaborating with women to vocalise his poetry.
Hate this pain
In early March, Tricky released the three-track EP 20,20. Opening song Hate This Pain resurrected the title of the closing chapter of his autobiography as a lyric. “What a fucking game, I hate this fucking pain,” sings Tricky and a new collaborator, Polish singer Marta Zlakowska, over a sparse piano loop.
Stripped back to create an expression of Tricky’s raw grief, the song feels like an open wound. It is deeply affecting. Accompanied by the mournful Lonely Dancer and the instrumental M, 20,20 was the first hint that Tricky was pouring his grief over his daughter’s death into new songs.
In June, he released the single Fall Please and announced a new album, Fall to Pieces, scheduled for release in early September.
Fall Please, which features Zlakowska, is a million miles from Hate This Pain. It’s an infectious pop song that has the late-night dance floor in mind. In interviews, Tricky has revealed that Fall Please was cut from his 2013 comeback album False Idols, because at the time he felt it was “too pop”.
That he dipped into recordings for False Idols was significant as it was this album that saw Tricky start to take back control of his career, through his partnership with Horst Weidenmüller’s !K7 label. When the partnership began, Tricky no longer owned the rights to his early work as they had been sold to cover part of a significant debt owed to the taxman.
As detailed in Hell is Round the Corner, Weidenmüller invested in Tricky to help rectify his financial affairs and help the artist build a new catalogue of music to which he owned the rights, one that would continue to earn him an income over time.
After more than a decade of interesting but underwhelming albums released on various labels, Tricky had found a new home and he responded with his best albums since the 1990s. This began with False Idols in 2013 and a follow-up the next year called Adrian Thaws. With his back against the wall, Tricky had come out fighting.
Like a stone
When Fall to Pieces came out in early September, it became clear that the album was a gripping exploration of Tricky’s grief. It was also unleashed at a time when Covid-19 was ravaging the world, making death and loss intimately familiar for all.
As he did on Maxinquaye in 1995, Tricky has channelled his grief for his daughter into one of his most creative and rewarding albums. He has created a collection of songs that speak to our shared grief in a pandemic-inflicted world.
New songs such as Chills Me to the Bone, Like a Stone and Take Me Shopping further explore the depths of the grief that began on Hate the Pain. On the former, Zlakowska delivers the line “From the depths of my despair, I can’t wait to meet you there” over a minimal beat that feels like it was built out of processed bells. On the latter two songs, Tricky articulates how grief can leave people feeling numb to the world around them, how grief feels like a stone.
These songs can be difficult to listen to because they are so intimate and the subject matter is so heavy. But it’s their raw honesty that is also their major appeal. As Tricky pours his heart out, the bravery of Fall to Pieces is evident.
Listen carefully to the album’s opening song, Thinking of – which sounds like a distant cousin of Gary Numan’s Down in the Park – and you’ll hear a distorted screeching sound that drops in and out a few times. It is distant, buried in the mix, but jarring nonetheless.
In an interview with Spin magazine, Tricky said this sound symbolises his brain suffering under grief. “That was my brain when my daughter died,” he said. “The worst time for me was waking up. When you first wake up, you don’t know what’s going on. Your brain hasn’t kicked in. So soon as my brain kicked in, I knew my daughter wasn’t there.”
Tricky described this as waking up in hell and says the process of recording Fall to Pieces allowed him to get away from that hell for a bit each day. Therapy helped, too. The screeching noise Tricky refers to on Thinking of gives a sense of the debilitation that comes with intense grieving and when considered in this context, it’s an example of how delicately these sparse songs of grief are arranged.
Much like the suicides of his mother and daughter bookend Tricky’s autobiography, the relationship between Maxinquaye and Fall to Pieces is undeniable. Twenty-five years ago Tricky created one of the landmark albums of the 1990s as a way to grieve for his mother. In 2020 he does the same, creating a devastating masterpiece.
Tricky has used his daring honesty to offer comfort to everyone who is grieving around the world this year. Grief may make you feel like your world has ended, a stone that feels as though it is dragging you down, but you are not alone. Grieving is part of the human experience and Fall to Pieces is a perfect example of this.