A murderous, mumbling intensity, a deep-drugged disdain; punky, punchy grit and grime, primitive edge and absorbed/absorbing purpose, all shot through with a slamming self-belief: Tricky’s recent on/from-another-planet two-song appearance on Later a few weeks back seemed to offer a guarantee that this was going to be brilliant, a vicious, head-spinning assault of deadly, doomed romance. The album was going to be joy and rage and soul pointed at and pitted against the lazy, the bland, the wear-your-influences-on-your-sleeve-so-no-one-will-notice-your-lack-of-heart rock bands, the New Labour/Coldplay axis of evil, the sponsored festival crap and the dim, dangerous, whiter-than-white, status quo-worshipping ‘Glastonbury’s for guitar bands’ bollocks that’s continually bleaching and rewriting history rather than taking it as inspiration and warning. This was, it seemed, going to do what Tricky and his Massive Nineties mates did way back when: re-charge and re-ignite pop music’s essential to-and-fro Black America-to-white-Britain-and-back-againness, celebrate all the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s working-class kids in Liverpool, London and Bristol standing, waiting eagerly at the docks, in clubs and in their angry, lost bedrooms for the latest r’n’b import just so they could copy, distort and build on it before sending it back where it came from with added sneer, a whole load of new textures and clumsy, cocky craftiness . . .

This was going to do all of that but it hasn’t. Not quite. Maybe he doesn’t deserve our absurd hopes and projections, our sense of slight disappointment and loss, but I reckon Tricky can cope: after five years in the States, he’s come back and challenges and soothes far more - is more creative, more honest, more in awe - than nearly all of his contemporaries and juniors. He stands way, way apart from the conservatism and mundanity of relative mediocrities like, say (and I had to get this in at some point) that Brooklyn hip-hop bloke who’s just upset the Brits with his being all black and rich or that old Manc who did three great songs a few years ago and nothing else since (except cloggingly, anaemically rip-off the Scousers and the Kent art-school boys who had themselves ripped off/given voice to the same black artists who inspired the Brooklyn bloke . . .)

As ever, he’s here and not here, this reclusive, odd 40-year-old man-boy. Other people - loads of ’em, women, men, ghosts - come in to toast and rap and sing and wail and chant his songs as he whispers and moans and guides and prods, back-seat-driving, pushing and pulling. He’s back at home in his alienated, crowded childhood, its sights and sounds and smells re-evoked and brought back to a weird, cinematic half-life though a filter of sort-of jazz (Puppy Boy), sort-of poppy rock (C’Mon Baby), sort-of trip-hop (Joseph), sort-of dancehall (Bacative) and sort-of ragga (Baligaga). There’s kind-of eighties synth-pop (Far Away), there’s textures and reminders of 2 Tone and glam and hip-hop and classical and all of these at once, coalesced and mutated (among others, the drifting, darkly stunning Past Mistake).

He’s funny and English and punky on the silly, searing single Council Estate, starkly, wonderfully political on embarrassing-at-the-start and fanfuckingtastic-by-the-end Scott-Heron-inspired Coalition, seductive and straight on the beautiful, breathy Cross To Bear, unnecessary and wish-you-hadn’t-done-that on Kylie’s Slow. The closing track, School Gates - the most superficially American song on the album, gothic country-folk that feels like Nick Cave’s antipodean take on Yank myth but is the most personal, Bristolian thing here - finishes things off in softly screwed-down, passionately sad triumph.

So Knowle West Boy is stronger and stranger than Martina’s or Portishead’s new ones: it’s not Maxinquaye or Blue Lines or London Calling or Dusty In Memphis but it’s so, so much more graceful and - unexpectedly, satisfyingly - more at ease with itself than nearly anything else out this year and anything Tricky himself has done in the last ten. By the end, he’s given you all of contemporary music: he’s fired and misfired, got it right and wrong; he’s magpied and roared and spat and cried and smiled.

Jay Z and Noel G really should have a listen.

Release date: 07/07/08
Artist website: www.trickyonline.com
Label: Domino