The artistic strength of Neneh Cherry has never been in question over the past 30-plus years. From a member of Rip Rig + Panic to the solo phenomenon of Raw Like Sushi to working with her husband and daughter in CirKus, Cherry has always followed her own path in her style. However, the maturation of her voice and viewpoint, as well as the renewed interest in it, is a welcome development. First with The Cherry Thing and now Blank Project, Neneh Cherry has stepped back onto center stage to deserved applause.
Blank Project, Cherry’s first solo album in nearly 18 years, simultaneously sounds like both the culmination of Cherry’s work to this point as well as a purposefully low-key, low pressure, recording. The speed of recording and mixing – a mere five days – certainly played a part. Her vocals are imperfect yet all the better for it; the rushed moments and the occasional cracks that begin to appear as she reaches for notes, add to the intimacy and vulnerability on display. As The Cherry Thing previously showed, Neneh Cherry has matured into a vocal stylist of some note. She is able to slip off a beat, to emphasize not just the lyric itself but the sound of a phrase, to roll and shape a melody with a nimble tongue. While it may sound easy to sing around a beat, to do so in a way that strengthens rather than weakens a song is a rare art. Cherry does so in a style that seems natural and necessary, a way best exemplified by Nina Simone and Willie Nelson. Like those artists, she bends the tune to her own rhythm and brings a feeling of rightness when doing so.
Time and again on Blank Project, producer Kieran Hebden (aka as electronic artist Four Tet) shines new light on Cherry’s delivery. This is immediately apparent on album opener “Across the Water”, which begins with Cherry and a simple drum, her voice barely more than a whispering rap, before a melody emerges that is the rise and fall of a quiet spiritual. The chorus blooms naturally, and as Cherry’s voice rises, the feeling of being in the room with her grows stronger. It’s almost too close, too intimate; a mother shares her fears, her pleas, and her desires. Like a voyeur, the listener is there, hearing every intake of air, every swallow. On “Naked”, she lengthens lines with held notes, shortens them with clipped, staccato phrasing, and purrs “baby” over the coda like syrupy liquor poured over ice.
Musically, the drum and synth duo RocketNumberNine settle into a point between The Thing’s aggressive, often pounding, rhythm section and the trip-hop inspired work of Neneh Cherry’s family band CirKus. For the most part, any melodic accompaniment is kept to a minimum, providing instead a rhythmic bed for Cherry to lay melodies over with her voice. When they do step forward, it is all the more effective for having not been the norm. For example, on “Weightless”, the heavy synth line lets Cherry step out from pure melody, and her delivery becomes about tempo and beat. Once again, Hebden’s production keeps that voice intimate and close despite the stronger presence of the backing instruments. However, it never sounds like Cherry is doing karaoke; she is always in step with her accompaniment while being perfectly audible in the mix.
“Out of the Black”, Cherry’s duet with Swedish singer Robyn, is the most conventional pop moment on an album that eschews familiar norms. Their voices blend quite well together, and the song is playful and feels off the cuff. Though an attention getter in the alternative press, it is by no means a sop to market forces. “Out of the Black” is a sincere, offbeat pop tune that plays to both singer’s strengths and personalities; it’s fun.
The high point of the album is the track “422”. From the start, the processed percussion, warm, soft synths, and cymbal washes signal this is something different. When Cherry appears, her voice is strong and pure, a little deeper than on much of what has come before. It is cool, confident, and commanding. The slight vibrato she applies is like a sigh, not a smile. As the synth horns rise, she lets them lead, and counters in turn. This isn’t a song of resignation nor complacency. Cherry is more controlled than ever before, resolute, her delivery selling every line. “422” is, like Blank Project as a whole, the sound of Neneh Cherry at full strength.
Maturity is often used as a cudgel against older artists, a slam meant to imply they have slipped into an obvious if slow decline, irrelevant yet still respected. Blank Project is a mature work, for Neneh Cherry has learned from her decades of musical expression how best to use her voice and lyrics to convey exactly what she wants in the way she wants. There is no decline, no irrelevance. Blank Project is Cherry’s finest album, and proves she is an artist still on an upward trajectory.