Sweet and Sour: Ruth Saxelby on Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project

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by Ruth Saxelby about
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25 years after “Buffalo Stance”, Cherry’s fourth solo album Blank Project—performed in collaboration with RocketNumberNine and produced by Four Tet—says there are no rules to getting older, says Ruth Saxelby.

 

Neneh Cherry has never minced her words. Her storytelling has always mixed the playful with the profound, which is why her biggest pop hits, “Buffalo Stance” and “Manchild”, still carry so much weight today. A quarter-century on from Raw Like Sushi—her debut that featured both iconic songs—Cherry returns with her fourth solo album, Blank Project. It follows last year’s collaboration with jazz trio The Thing: a covers album called The Cherry Thing that, while impeccably recorded, was a little like being short-changed. It sounded like Cherry but it didn’t quite feel like it. A big part of her appeal has always been that delicious attitude: all spunky asides and eye-to-eye leveling. Thankfully, The Cherry Thing did a throat-clearing job, because Blank Project is Cherry through and through—and then some.

Cherry will turn fifty in March and Blank Project finds her as no-nonsense as ever—warning of the “horse-shit that’s getting too close” one minute and calling out taxmen as “pricks” the next—but this time around she also wears her vulnerability with pride. Blank Project is an upturned bag on a table, pouring out its contents for anyone to sort through: chewed up emotions, snotty little insecurities and the kind of anxiety that’ll etch red marks into the skin if you carry it around too long. This is no pity party, though—there are no apologies and no excuses. This is adult territory, a confrontation of the demons in order to put them back in their place.

That’s never more apparent than on the powerful “Spit Three Times”, which appears to address depression: “Monkey’s on my back, holding me down / Black dog’s in the corner looking up at me.” The twist in the tale is her recognition of the complicated nature of the beast and how it has a way of crawling inside identity: “I’m addicted to you / You’re the fever, baby / I got the fever in me / You’re the fever, that’s me / How is it going to go? / Leave me alone / You’re addicted to me / Leave me alone.”

Providing musical accompaniment on the record are London live/improv electronic duo RocketNumberNine. They build a spare yet insistent mood from raw-edged beats and organic-sounding percussion, flirting with jazz, funk, rock, trip hop and techno throughout their flow and often within the same track. Yet, crucially, they never drown Cherry: she remains center-stage. Instead their sound chimes with her musical personality: warm, rough, occasionally oddball. Four Tet produced but you wouldn’t know it—his touch feels deferential, more a steer than a fingerprint. Apparently, the foursome all camped out in Four Tet’s studio in Woodstock for the duration of the recording, working quickly and intensely.

That energy runs throughout the album, which is not short of jams. “Naked” finds Cherry riffing on the speed of life and living over serrated-edged synths, sparse drums and perky keys. Then there’s the much-hyped collaboration with Robyn, “Out of the Black”—a cheeky little number with a nah-nah-nah-nah-nah vocal delivery from both that succeeds in pulling the carpet on expectations before blazing into wiggly, wriggly life. Give it a second listen and the earworm will find you.

Elsewhere she deals with money problems (wasted rock number “Weightless”), the push-pull dynamic of relationships (“Blank Project”, which features the between-the-eyes line, “I got a man / I love him so much / Sometime I hate it / Just can’t let go.”), and the fears that govern society (the effortlessly graceful “422”). Spoken word opener “Across The Water” and the anecdotal “Dossier” don’t quite pack the punch of the rest of the album, but neither are they filler—there’s a naive charm to them that rounds the record’s story.

Ultimately, Cherry’s outpouring is an exorcism for the listener, too. Her calm tone soothes, her bold stare empowers and that laugh is infectious. To hear a voice that is so deeply familiar—so intertwined with personal moments of friendship and love the way a universal hit like “Buffalo Stance” is—address the unspoken things inside with dignity and humor is nothing less than a joy. There are no rules to getting older, says Blank Project, but there are plenty of riches if you just listen out for them. ~

 

Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project is out in Germany on February 28th and in the rest of Europe on March 3rd via Smalltown Supersound