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Neneh Cherry
Blank Project Helen King , March 4th, 2014 09:20

Firstly; that title. It's not a new conceit: the empty page, the unnamed musical composition, the untouched canvas, or, nowadays I guess, the optimistically blinking cursor - and versions thereof - have long been employed as symbols or perverse "names" for an array of artistic projects; the metaphorical connotations of absence or "blankness" conversely saying something about the artwork so monikered. However, hats off to Neneh Cherry from the get-go with this one, because knowing what to call something you've made is never easy, (I imagine it's harder still when the thing you've made is your first solo record in nearly 18 years), yet Blank Project is a beautifully apposite name for this remarkable album. For this is a stark, bold, and intensely raw record, which feels in many ways that it has come from - or at least represents - a kind of tabula rasa in the mind of its creator. Cherry is an artist who has never been shy of pointing herself at completely new targets in any case, but, here, she has produced something of uncommon otherness, transparency, and force.

Blank Project is - and I don't say this lightly - a triumph. Although it is a solo record, Cherry's love for musical collaboration and exchange has played a big part in shaping the finished document: produced by Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, and featuring collaborations with Essex electronica brothers RocketNumberNine and (fellow) Swedish artist Robyn, Cherry and her cohorts have created a stunning piece of work; both audaciously sparse, and - by virtue of the dense alchemy which arises between the propulsive instrumentation and the urgent, unflinching vocal work, the striking lyrical naturalism - intoxicatingly rich. Blank Project represents one of those rarefied moments in which an established artist meets the expectations set by her previous career, and then exceeds them in the most exciting, tangential of ways, resulting in something thrillingly different, hella moody, and deeply exciting.

Even a cursory dig into the circumstances of the gestation of this record confirms what an attentive listen suggests; Blank Project is evidently rooted in deep personal reflection, on Cherry's part, upon the uniquely destabilising vicissitudes of life which have contoured the last few years for her. On 2012's extraordinary collaboration with free jazz collective The Thing, Cherry paid tribute to her late stepfather, Don Cherry, who died in 1995; an acclaimed jazz trumpeter, innovator, and - in his outlook and creative drive - a liberating and formative influence upon Cherry and her brother Eagle Eye, during that time when it matters most. And then, a few years ago - because this is what happens to us in life as time screams past - Cherry lost her mother, the artist, Moki Cherry. Slowly revealing itself as a skewed, abstracted transcript of that time, Blank Project is, in many ways, a record sculpted by the tangible knife-edge of loss.

As such, opening song 'Across The Water' – a bare, vox-and-drums evocation of a departure no less traumatic for its inevitability – sees Cherry articulate searing connections between the void left by her mother's passing, and her own role as mother of three: "since our mother's gone, it always seems to rain […] my fear is for my daughters". The track extrapolates from this context to explore the relationship between place and belonging. Cherry has led a markedly peripatetic life – born in Stockholm, she was subsequently moved by her family (via a commune in Hasselholm, Sweden) to various different locales, including London, Pudsey, Yorkshire (of all places), and, importantly, New York City; a place "across the water" that she evidently feels a particular kinship with, and which is deftly mobilised in this opening song as both actual locality/home, and, I think, as a fleeting figurative analog for the mother, and the state of motherhood: "New York City, she speaks to me in tongues," Cherry pulses out, adding a swathe of feverishly interlocking levels meaning to this otherwise starkly rendered song.

The loss of Cherry's mother hovers over the record, certainly, but Blank Project is by no means solely concerned with that loss; rather, it feels like the leaping-off point for a collection of songs which – with the bravery, sass, and humour we already associate with Cherry – interrogate the other corners and categories of selfhood she now inhabits at this point in her life. As such, at various points in this record, she is daughter, lover, wife, artist, friend, mother. Importantly, though, we also get a sense of the writer of these songs – a figure very much grounded in the present - taking a lucid and fearless look into the way these diverse, perhaps ostensibly mutually corrosive identities actually intersect, overlap, and inflect each other over time.

Thirty seconds into first hearing the title track from the album (which is sequenced in second place here), I shouted out loud, twice; firstly with some weird, expulsive, non-verbal utterance, and secondly with the name of my friend, shrieking at him to come downstairs and listen. The track was so immediate, so soul-soaked, and so hands-down outrageously HOT that I was physically and emotionally arrested in a way I've not been a long time, especially not by way of new music. Fast-forward a week, and I get my hands on Blank Project the album, and, with deep excitement, register that the compulsive brilliance of the titular song is by no means an anomaly. There's a whole record of this stuff.

And so to that title track: over a dirtily driving drum and bass stomp, Cherry unfurls a fierce and soulful diatribe, stuffed with words that through her delivery near enough bristle with personality and conviction; a charged litany of sex and fights and filth and love: "I got a man…" she incants ("no doubt!" my head screams). Pacing cat-like and sure down this pregnant path of wrong, Blank Project gathers itself into some febrile distillation of Roxanne Shante, MIA, TLC circa CrazySexyCool, the Gossip - and, weirdly, in the irresistible melodic tilt of the chorus, the Sugababes at their best - but then the latter comparison only stands when we note that the arresting melodic hooks here are all Cherry's, rather than samples from other songs. The lyrics, meanwhile, are terrible and brilliant: husbands and wives "leak perfection", while, in a testament to the power of this track, Cherry manages to make an abomination like "does my ass look big in these new trousers?" sound not only passable, but absolutely "up yer bum!© Wish You Were Here" RIGHT. And that's because the sinews and tendons and cartilage of her actual real day-to-day life are so obviously being laid out on the slab here, that the more the words articulate the skinlessness of the narrative, the less ridiculous it seems.

'Out Of The Black' flings Cherry and that inimitable treat of a voice of hers together with compatriot Robyn's; and it works beautifully. Delicate storms of melody and desperation make webs all over the song like non-one's in control. Which is bullshit, because these women so are; but we all crave abandon now and then. Here as all over the record, the soul and energy of the vocal performance(s) are matched and amplified via the instinctive production work. Blank Project is appositely handled in this respect, given the bare-bones content of Cherry's work: throughout, Hebden opens up both dizzying, scuzzy depths, and startling surface expanses, as though they had been obvious – if latent – from the start. On certain songs, he leaves cavernous spaces behind Cherry's vocal in ways that bring ESG's South Bronx Story to mind; on others, he shunts her charisma-soaked verbiage so far up against the fucked-up tumblings of the rhythm section that you're left gasping claustrophobia and oxygen. During 'Dossier', washy, disorientating drums and cymbals build up, and then condense into something far more muscular, punctuated, and defined, a mantra-esque pulsation over which Cherry unleashes the kind of tough, dirty, and sugary rap only she can really nail. Similarly, the song 'Cynical' - in which she showcases both the intensely soulful reach of her voice, and its more clipped, sticky, rap-rounded corners - functions as an accurate a mind-map of Hebden's conception of what makes music urgent and compelling as you could wish for. Album closer 'Everything' skits toyingly close to Peaches' 'F**k The Pain Away', via Yoko Ono circa Double Fantasy, via Le Tigre, via Chain & the Gang, via Billie Holiday.

There's always been something uniquely disarming about Neneh Cherry, whether it's in the more overt indications of her approach to her art - as when she famously performed 'Buffalo Stance' on TOTP whilst being seven months pregnant with her eldest daughter, or in the traceable thread which I think runs throughout her otherwise very diverse and tangential career: her art has always felt intimately connected to her real life, and vice versa. And that kind of connection results in a complete absence of bullshit. It's not that you would never guess that Blank Project was made by someone with the kind of track record Cherry has, it's that it sounds exactly, refreshingly like that; which is to say that it is a record of unusual honesty, defiance, and self-awareness, and one that more than makes good on the promise implicit in the vital work which preceded it. Blank Project is a stark, soulful, galvanising record; it is also a deeply generous one. There's a hell of a lot of Cherry in this album, and she offers that up with grace, humility, and just the right amount of anxiety and compunction. Moreover, she has paid us the compliment of refraining from obfuscating or filtering that content in the way that so many artists do by default, and via fear. And it sounds incredible. We're very lucky.

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