Neneh Cherry, Blank Project, Smalltown Supersound
You’ve gotta remember what Neneh Cherry meant to us back then, when she was the very definition of fresh: young, fierce, funky, smart and sexy. She was utterly joy-inducing; a filthy laugh in bomber jacket and brassy earrings. We loved her. She was our girl.
So a good proportion of the older music-buying sorority would lend anything Cherry released in 2014 a fond ear for the sake of their teenage selves mouthing along to every raspy giggle and breathy coo of ‘Buffalo Stance’ (“What is he like? What’s he like anyway?!”) but it’s quite something that her new album needs none of the rosy glow of nostalgia to endear it to her listeners, doesn’t coast in on the coat-tails of past affection for the popkid Cherry used to be, but is a triumphant declaration of who she is now, as effortlessly magnetic as ever, older, wiser, more complex maybe but not a jot less cool. Blank Project is unequivocally a good thing.
Her first solo project for 18 years, the album was immaculately produced by Kieran Hebden of FourTet, who creates both claustrophobia and clarity out of Cherry’s resolutely danceable songs. She is joined by RocketNumberNine – a pair of brothers who provide an underpinning stew of hiphop beats, sparse skittering percussion and deep down dirty dubstep scuzz-outs.
It starts with the sultry ‘Across the Water’, Cherry acapella, spinning a story of mothers and daughters, of cities and seas, over the barest of knocks and rattles from the percussion. Given the preponderance of both tunes and grooves (not to mention the presence of Scandi-pop goddess Robyn) on the rest of the album, the cool minimalism of the opener is a tad misleading, but it does serve to foreground Cherry’s devotion to sound as a precision instrument. After all, she’s got New York jazz in her blood as well as the twitchy brews of her British trip-hop and post-punk tribes.
Then ‘Blank Project’ rumbles into view with a distorted bass riff (recalling the similarly grubby and fevered funk underlay of The Fall’s ‘Dr Buck’s Letter’, of all things); it’s urgent and instant and quite clearly a hit. ‘Spit Three Times’ is a darker thing, a trippy discourse on depression, anguished vocals winding their way through cymbal crashes and roiling basslines. ‘Weightless’ and ‘Out of the Black’ are both catchy, slinky, pop-hearted beasts, perfectly constructed of noise and sass.
Blank Project needs to be loud or in headphones; these are not songs that should be heard trebly and thin. You don’t want them squidged into the corner, you want the floor thundering, the bells and drums and buzzes clattering in your face, every chime of every uneasy harmonic up close and personal. You want Neneh in all her grinning glory, shaking her curls in triumph, while the brothers Page batter out their squalls of grimy noise as a rug beneath her feet. It’s an extraordinary return. And she’s still ours.