Discussing ‘Blank Project’ in a recent interview, Neneh Cherry confessed to an attribute, undeniably notable throughout her music career – ‘I’m allergic to doing the obvious thing’. From contributions to the punk movement, via a brief stint in the all -female punk band, The Slits, to her iconic ‘Buffalo Stance’, that provided a fresh import of Queen Latifah/Salt N Pepa-esque rap to the UK. Her last solo-album, ‘Man’, included a soulful, synthesised homage to James Brown (‘Woman’) and more recent collaborative work has seen Cherry embrace jazz, a perhaps more sentimental homage to her step-father, jazz trumpeter, Don Cherry. Versatile and spontaneous, Cherry’s music has defiantly resisted the confines of genre, and her newest album ‘Blank Project’, is no different. Collaborating with London-based duo RocketNumberNine, the album was recorded in just five days, and was mixed live by Kieran Hebden (A.K.A Four Tet). Indeed, despite being Cherry’s first solo album in sixteen years, the result is remarkably fresh.
Cherry may now be a grandmother but working with Hebden, a seminal figure in contemporary dance music, seems notably apt. Both Hebden and Cherry have long rejected the notion of genre, with Hebden’s previous work experimenting with jazz, folk, post-rock, house and garage to a name a few, successfully circumventing any monotonous repetition that electronic music is prone to suffer from. Producing his music at home and without a manager, Hebden is also far from your conventional DJ, and with Cherry, a self confessed ‘rebel’, who notoriously performed eight months pregnant on Top of the Pops, the outcome of the collaboration was always going to be compelling.
The album begins with ‘Across the water’, an almost acappella, enigmatic expression of motherhood which explores both the anxieties of being one (“my fear is for my daughters”), and losing one (“since her mother’s gone it always seems to rain”). Cherry lost her own mother in 2009, and has since spoken about the effect it had on stifling her creativity. While the minimalistic backing track may allude to a numb, subdued sense of grief, suggesting it has become inescapably internalized; Cherry’s voice remains defiant, undefeated by such trauma. ‘422’ shares a similar sparse ambience, with the use of gongs creating an ethereal, almost hypnotic effect to Cherry’s wary, paranoid melody. Both ‘422’ and ‘Everything’ are products of just one take. However while ‘422’ is subtle and introspective, ‘Everything’ is carefree, and lighthearted in its spontaneity. Cherry’s imperfect sing-song vocals, switch from childlike nursery-rhyme chants to spoken word, also found in ‘Cynical’, resonant of her ‘Buffalo Stance’ days. While ‘Cynical’ features a percussive, liquid backing track, ‘Out of the Black’ is perhaps the catchiest and most full-formed dance track of the album, with Cherry interchanging vocals with fellow-Swede Robyn in a fierce, yet melancholy number. A similar sense of dark energy is found on both ‘Naked’ and ‘Blank Project’, with the latter featuring primal percussion that hints at Cherry’s punk past and an aggressive use of synth, creating a hard, almost dystopian feel. ‘Weightless’ showcases a similar resonance of punk, combining overdriven guitar with an enchanting, funky organ riff.
There are times where Cherry almost makes RocketNumberNine’s backing tracks redundant, disregarding any need for symbiosis between the two. Blank Project is distorted, inconsistent and flawed, and yet its inescapable ambience and thin vocal-orientated texture means the result is wonderfully refreshing. In 1989 the New York Times predicted Cherry’s debut album ‘might save dance pop from built in obsolescence’, over twenty years later they dubbed Hebden ‘an antidote to dance-floor claustrophobia’ . Blank Project extends beyond curing the ailments of the dance genre. Cherry is the dominant force within her music, with a raw honesty that transcends her songs, regardless of the multiplicity (or perhaps the inexistence) of genre.
Words: Ruby Atkin