Neneh Cherry only emerges when she has something to say, granting an artistic purity to every release. Previous album Blank Project was an intensely personal album. Songs like “Across the Water” found her grieving for her recently deceased mother and “Spit Three Times” addressed her battles with depression and her fears for the future. Unsurprisingly, considering the title, Broken Politics sees Cherry cast her gaze further afield as she tackles various dominate political issues such as abortion, the refugee crisis, gun control, and the prevalence of disinformation and fake news.
Nevertheless, things are never really that simple. Throughout her career, Cherry has never been one to beat the listener over the head with her polemic, always carefully choosing when to take a stance and stand up for her convictions. Broken Politics is no different. The wider socio-political lyrics are woven into the more personal, reflective ones meaning that, in a sense, the whole album feels like delving into her very personal thoughts on the world and how they directly affect her.
Musically, the biggest difference from Blank Project is the absence of drumming from Rocketnumbernine’s Tom Page. However, once again, baring a couple of guest appearances, Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) returns and is this time responsible for all of the music on the album. Building songs from an enormous library of sounds, his deftly layered musical backing highlights his uncanny ability to make each track sound as if it is played by a consummate session band.
The music for Broken Politics was written at the same time as Four Tet’s New Energy album and it shares a similar aesthetic. Album opener “Fallen Leaves” features the same ambient electronics and muffled, hammered dulcimer as “Two Thousand and Seventeen”, from that album, and serves as the perfect reintroduction to Cherry’s voice. Here sounding clearer than ever, it has lost none of its ability to move as her words dance around Hebden’s melodies.
“Kong” rides a thick, dub bassline like the roll of distant thunder courtesy of Massive Attack’s 3D. Cherry sounds genuinely hurt and betrayed by the unfulfilled political promises of the past (“I’m a member of shattered allusions”) and seemingly caught in a cycle of hope and despair. (“And goddamn guns and guts and history / And bitter love still put a hole in me”). On “Synchronised Devotion”, Cherry leaves no doubt that this is her in outspoken, combative mood but in her own distinct way with the line, “It’s my politics living in a slow jam”, over understated jazz piano and xylophone.
The loose, jam approach also runs through “Deep Vein Thrombosis”. Over a cool electro-jazz backing, Cherry recalls her slam poetry days delivering her lyrics with a similar rhythm and bite. The more overtly political, “Faster Than the Truth” shows off Cherry’s customary ability to deliver a succinct and profound statement with the line “lies travel faster than the truth” as she takes down the spread of disinformation in the modern world. Musically, the song demonstrates the power of doing less with more as her vocals sit on top of marching, military-style drums. Initially sounding like two barely linked demos, Hebdon clever uses a gliding piano run to sew the parts together.
Opening with a blast of an air horn, “Natural Skin Deep” is the most obvious dancefloor-ready song on the album. Featuring a stampeding rhythm, steel drums, and sonic blasts it gives the album a little shake when it needs it most. The contemporary hip-hop of “Shock Gun Shack” finds Cherry drawing strength from the March for Our Lives, pro-gun control campaign that saw thousands march in cities across America. With gentle strings and xylophone-like a cool breath of wind, “Black Monday” sees Cherry advocate for pro-choice with lines like, “I wanna choose my own day” and “Isn’t that my right / When to breathe to my own guilt.”
“Slow Release” finds Hebden teasing out melodies with the lightest of touches as he wraps unhurried flute around a steady drum beat. The measured pace of the song makes the deep house chords that shatter the mood all the more surprising. With a flurry of cascading notes and a crunchy rhythm, album closer, “Soldier”, is a warning to respect women’s rights (“You’re all over me / Respect me / Or then this is it”). As with the rest of the statements on the album, Cherry refuses to shout, rather letting the power of the words weave themselves into the subconscious.
As a follow up to, what at the time, felt like a highly experimental, leftfield album for Cherry in Blank Project, Broken Politics is far less of a shock to the system. It is a more even-paced, leaner affair with Hebden showing his ability to create subtly shaded melodic gems that allow Cherry’s voice and lyrics to shine. In turn, Cherry turns out vocal hook lines emboldened by the intricate music behind her.