When Neneh Cherry—singer, 80s it-girl, grandmother—announced a new record for 2014, it was met with a collective "huh" of quasi-anticipation. At least, of curiosity. This may be because, in spite of her past fame, most of us still don’t know who she is or what she has to say.
In fact, Cherry's career has been driven less by creative vision than by a series of productive collaborations. A decent singer, her real talent is to spot talent in others. The first of these was a biographical accident: her famous step-dad, Don Cherry. Since moving to London as a child, however, she has sought out and cultivated relationships with the likes of Massive Attack, Matt Johnson, Mick Jones, and Damon Albarn. Cherry is the quintessential scenester, giving the impression of being wherever something relevant is happening, and of having been there since day one.
This was articulated in a most literal way on "Buffalo Stance," the one Cherry song that everyone knows. Its message was, basically, that the singer and her friends were the coolest people in London. The title referred to the Buffalo group, icons of sexy youth who were paid to be photographed standing around, by magazines such as The Face and Arena. The fact that this obnoxious track was a massive global hit still seems unlikely, a quarter-century on. In essence, it was a collection of in-jokes and personal references that only Cherry and her circle were intended to get (the opening lines referenced an ex-boyfriend's sneakers). Musically, Buffalo Stance was one step above an ad jingle: a song with not much song in it, backed up by featherweight beats from Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass.
Cherry continues to rely on high-powered collaborators. On "Blank Project," the key player is Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet. Hebden is a very big get. His credibility adds a lot to the potential draw of a record that, otherwise, might have had a fairly low-key reception.
The album itself suggests, though, that working with Hebden may have been a problematic choice. Firstly, he is not known for making "songs.” His output has been mercurial, marked by subtle builds and intricate detail. This poses some challenges for an artist like Cherry, who still works more or less in a pop format. Also, despite his brilliance, Hebden himself may not be at his best in collaborative situations. He's made a bunch of joint records, most notably with Burial and Thom Yorke, which are frankly less good than what each artist is capable of by themselves. They've been far from bad, but not house-burners on their own merit.
This may be why the music on "Blank Project" seems strangely un-musical. The backing tracks are spare, with neatly crafted sounds. Cherry's voice has an undeniable personality, and some weight. At the end of the day, though, she is not a great songwriter in any conventional sense. None of the melodies really resolve into something you'd remember. Her vocals are more like riffs, which sound disjointed when strung together. Hebden, who primarily works in an instrumental mode, seems to have struggled to fit them into anything coherent. The record is marked by a particular kind of awkwardness, one that usually results from artists trying to make "difficult" music, or from working through personal issues in a high-end studio. It's reminiscent of Tricky's fuck-you period, or anything by Lauren Hill after "Miseducation."
For Cherry, the result is a murky, often claustrophobic micro-genre: the urban dirge. Many of the songs tackle psychosocial problems, such as "Naked," "Weightless," and "Across The Water." Imagine "Sign Of The Times," without the good old American funk. "Spit Three Times" makes the formula work, probably because it lurches with the genuine menace of a downtempo Massive Attack tune. "Dossier" and "Blank Project" are ghetto love stories—the album's other favorite subject. "Dossier" is the weaker of them. Cherry still tries to drive it with a call-and-response trick that she's been using since "Raw Like Sushi." It doesn't quite work here, perhaps due to naff lyrics like "go get low" and "get your booty on the floor." Hebden gives her a great hissing build-up from the back, but nothing really happens.
A moment of sunshine is provided by Robyn, who lends her charm to "Out Of The Black." Cherry's fellow Swede adds a refreshing dose of goofy levity into what is, otherwise, mostly a downer. The two singers have a nice chemistry. Even here, though, it is Robyn who provides the smirk. Cherry still sounds completely serious, as if she wasn't quite in on the joke. Regardless, the song is likable, perhaps because it hasn't completely given up on the concept of fun.
But it's the final track, "Everything," that properly sums up "Blank Project." It starts well enough, with an interesting vocal sample and a scratchy beat. Before long, though, Cherry wades into familiar territory, singing about "walking down the street," seeing the "crack-smokin' hussy," etc. Cherry—who sold her house in Park Slope after being mugged—is still trying to tell stories against the backdrop of some fictional "street" which feels grandfathered in from a Michael Jackson video. It's a potentially tiresome topic, unless you can write with the insight and mythopoetic fantasism of a Ghostface Killah. Cherry can't; she seems to be speculating about it from a cafe in Primrose Hill. The lyrics quickly fall into bits of Urban Nonsense. By the end, she seems to have given up on saying anything at all. "Yeah, yeah," she sings, "la, la, la la, la la." Indeed.
The author would like to clarify that London's RocketNumberNine—brothers Tom and Ben Page—collaborated with Neneh Cherry and Kieran Hebden on "Blank Project." The Pages have collaborated with Hebden on prior projects, and have released their own album "Meyouweyou" on the Smalltown Supersound label.
01. Across The Water
02. Blank Project
04. Spit Three Times
08. Out Of The Black (featuring Robyn)
Blank Project will be out on 25 February 2014.