48:52 min • Smalltown Supersound • February 25, 2014
John Preston reviews
I have a confession. Although it would be unreasonable, as well as creatively and artistically crippling for her, I want Neneh Cherry to make another ‘Buffalo Stance’. And one more ‘Manchild’ whilst she’s at it. Those two songs are her most famous and as perfect an example of R&B hip-hop pop that you will ever hear. Weird, joyous, melancholic and just gloriously sing-along, they instantly established Cherry as an artist who represented the period so completely that she has never been forgotten as a female performer who embodied supreme self-possession and control over her image as well as her music. But therein of course lies the real truth in my confession: it is built on nostalgia, sentimentality probably, and an opportunity to recapture something that probably can’t (and shouldn’t) be. And Neneh Cherry has never been an artist to wallow or revisit. Not for her the desperate and depressing revival tours and reality TV features.
2012’s The Cherry Thing was the last full length album to feature Cherry’s vocals on every track. It was a relatively specialist jazz album, wild and uninhibited but a sideline nonetheless. This, only her fourth album proper, has some of the residue of the itchy, structure punishing, live feel of that last outing; yet where that album felt like an ensemble piece (which is what it was) this is all her: front, back and centre. Blank Project, a misleading title given its sharp focus, is very much about Neneh Cherry, her life now and the roles that she plays out, both old and new. To get back to my confessional wish, there is not another ‘Buffalo Stance’ here; of course there isn’t. There is however, amongst the avant-garde noises and sometimes bare sound stages, some bold and invigorating pop song structures. Surprisingly they are not to be found in the ponderous and strangely characterless duet with Cherry’s super-groupie Robyn on ‘Out of the Black’ but in a trio of songs that appear in the album’s first half.
Following the reflective and protective ‘Across The Water’, a gentle and partially rapped opener set to African percussion and stark patted drums, the title track Blank Project establishes Kieran Heden’s (aka Four Tet) production style and sonic choices: live drums, drum machines, guitars, pinging jangling ear flinching percussion and a low frequency, vibrating and rubbery electronic bass that shares equal billing with only Cherry herself for persistence and aggravated attitude. Along with ‘Blank Project’, ‘Naked’ and ‘Weightless’ detail addictive compulsive relationships, making peace with a world and culture that resists being grounded in anything other than the present and feelings of being overwhelmed by the pressure to carry on “as normal”.
Strip me naked and put me down right,
Strips me naked, my wings need to blast off,
Life is going faster, like a bus it runs me over,
No kind of beacon, fill me up and make me whole now –
All of these songs have a rambunctious punk energy which link in with Cherry’s earlier time with Rip, Rig and Panic but also, like her best work, they have fantastic melodies and exuberant, big choruses. ‘Weightless’ in particular has a massive charge that swings around a chorus that lists bad dancing, over spending and hasty decisions and a desire for some kind of spiritual balance. Any of these songs could be performed by artists that are half Cherry’s age, and who represent the more interesting end of R&B/dance hybrids – such as Angel Haze, MIA, Sky Ferreira and even Lorde. This is a testament not only to the influence that Cherry has had on modern music but also her refusal to conform to perceived notions of appropriateness.
‘Spit Three Times’ is a mid tempo track that recalls Cherry’s dalliance with trip hop around the mid ’90s. The track ‘Feel It’ tackles depression but is not in itself a depressing track. Cherry’s warm and clear vocal also sounds suspicious of the superstitions that she thinks may help keep her dark mood at bay.
Monkeys on my back,
Holding me down.
Black dogs in the corner,
Looking up at me.
But you’re like an old friend or an enemy; holding me down –
‘Dossier’, a definite stand out track, has a truly sinister build and bipolar mood but ends up revealing nothing scarier than domesticity, although this may be Cherry’s biggest fear. The one true ballad ‘422’ sees Cherry joining her native Swedes with a glacial, melancholic electronica reminiscent of The Knife and the closing track ‘Everything’ which may be overlong at nearly 8 minutes, is the most experimental track here, calling to mind Yoko Ono albeit at her most subdued, all of it though hanging together beautifully with a graceful and consistent temperament.
Neneh Cherry has always been more of a commentator than a player. Her views have come from her own perspective and experiences as a woman, a woman of colour, a hip hop star, a pop star, a parent and a reluctant participant of the music industry. To use an overused and often incorrectly applied phrase she is what you might call authentic. Blank Project feels like a concentrated version of Cherry in that she is so present throughout and her strength and vulnerability heightened. It’s as if you’ve spent the morning with her sharing pots of coffee whilst trying to entangle problems, and laughing hysterically at pretty much nothing together to find she’s just left. She’s still live in your head but she’s no longer present, such is the personal nature and intensity of these songs. I won’t deny that I would love to hear her produced by Pharrell or the new Beyonce whizz kid Boots, just to hear what they would come up with. But that’s not to belittle or underestimate the quality of this record. Neneh Cherry is back. Her art and soul inform this project, blank only for you to fill the role of listener and to share the very human experiences expressed honestly, courageously and often thrillingly throughout.