Twenty years ago today, the second Tricky album, Pre-Millennium Tension, was released. His 1995 debut, Maxinquaye, was a startling, handmade-sounding record, his voice frequently a background mutter as Martina Topley-Bird sang, almost to herself, up front. Some songs—like a deconstruction of Public Enemy‘s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”—added grinding guitars and sharp, metallically ringing drums to the dominant hip-hop vibe. Others, like “Hell is Round the Corner,” turned R&B samples into horror-movie soundtracks; Isaac Hayes became a moaning revenant, pulled from a record so scarred the crackling was like an extra layer of percussion. Maxinquaye‘s mood shifted from track to track, and it was about 15 minutes too long, but it still hung together as something unique and compelling, indisputably the product of a single, focused musical mind, dragging others into his orbit and bending them to his will. It was a critical sensation, as much for its exoticism (weird, arty rap from England!) as for its musical merits.

The next-to-last track was the darkest, most cryptic thing on the record. For nearly seven minutes, “Strugglin'” looped a minimal beat that sounded like he’d made it on a home tape deck, as Tricky and Martina muttered and sang about madness, brainwashing, and hallucinations. It was a morose, paranoid mantra, a downward spiral transformed into music. And it was the first hint of what was to come the following year.

Pre-Millennium Tension begins with a slowly wavering, droning low note (guitar? keyboard?), a drum loop like a dangerously sped-up heartbeat, and in the background sounds of breaking glass and grinding metal. Martina sings about stealing Tricky‘s asthma medicine; his own voice is a clotted whisper/moan. In the song’s second half, a guitar begins to emit Greg Ginn-like bursts of noise that never resolve into a riff; they just explode over and over, slowly fading away. It’s an ominous beginning that tells the listener, if you came expecting more head-nodding beats and arty-crafty sample collages, buckle in, ’cause we’re going somewhere else this time.

“Christiansands,” the first single, is more of a traditional song. At first, Tricky and Martina‘s voices are blended, as they rap and sing the same lines simultaneously. Eventually, though, she moves to the chorus (“I met a Christian in Christiansands/A devil in Helsinki”) as he begins tearing at the idea of relationships—they were a couple for a while—croaking “Always, what does that mean/Forever, what does that mean” in that same phlegmatic voice.

Having Martina sleep-rap her way through a tough-minded hip-hop track was such a good trick on “Black Steel,” the pair pulled it twice more on P-MT. Chill Rob G‘s “Bad Dreams” is turned into something like a half-remembered nightmare retold upon waking, while Eric B. & Rakim‘s “Lyrics of Fury” is half-whispered into a red-hot mic as what sounds like a live drummer clatters out a junkyard breakbeat.

The literal centerpiece of the album—it’s the sixth track, out of 11—and the one that makes most clear Tricky‘s strategy of listener alienation is “Ghetto Youth.” The longest song on this concise record at nearly six minutes, it’s nothing but a slow, jackhammer drum pattern, a skeletal melody made up of descending long tones, and an almost totally incomprehensible, echo-drenched monologue from vocalist Sky, delivered in a Jamaican patois so dense it would require subtitles if it were dialogue in a movie (Hype Williams famously did this in Belly).

Even more than Maxinquaye, Pre-Millennium Tension is Martina Topley-Bird‘s album; at any rate, she’s by far the most compelling thing about it. Tricky‘s vocals are the same half-choked rattle throughout, but Martina raps, croons, whispers, and more. On “My Evil is Strong,” the next-to-last track, she yowls in an almost unhinged manner as the song begins. Behind the two of them, the music—crashing piano chords, sudden sharp snare drums, and disconnected rattles—sets up patterns without enough cohesion to count as a beat. It’s just a sequence of discrete events that happen to repeat. The album ends with “Piano,” a dead slow recitation by Tricky over a four-note piano pattern and a rhythm that sounds like a hospital respirator.

Unlike its predecessor (or the Nearly God album which came in between them, and which I’m not gonna talk about here ’cause I’ve only ever heard it once), Pre-Millennium Tension stays strong from beginning to end. Its dark mood, reflected in its navy blue cover art, never changes. The tempos may speed up or slow down, but the thousand-yard-stare at its heart remains steady. It’s a deeply unsettling record, best heard on headphones, preferably while walking around a neighborhood you’re not familiar with and probably aren’t welcome in.

I saw Tricky at Irving Plaza in 1997, supporting this album. He and his band performed in nearly total darkness, which given the intensity of the music, was appropriate, if somewhat frustrating. I didn’t have much fun at the time; I was hoping for more of a “show,” not some kind of moody, paranoid exercise in collective catharsis. A video of a similar/contemporaneous BBC performance can be seen below, to give you some idea of what it was like:

Twenty years later, Pre-Millennium Tension remains Tricky‘s best album, and one of the best of 1996, period. It was reissued earlier this year in a deluxe edition that included five bonus tracks, all of which had originally appeared on contemporaneous singles. Get it from Amazon.

Phil Freeman

Stream Pre-Millennium Tension on Spotify:

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