Neneh Cherry - Blank Project

Neneh Cherry’s funky swag flares through an album of minimalistic beats.

Additional Info

7.3

ALBUM: Blank Project

ARTIST: Neneh Cherry

2014

Electronic

Last week, I stumbled across the music video for Neneh Cherry’s “Out Of The Black.” Two words—“feat. Robyn”—is all the convincing I needed to click the link. Concocted by the artist, 241-24-7 (AKA Dario Vigorito), the music video for “Out Of The Black” is a Technicolor trip that’s equally hypnotic and funky. It’s urban, geometrical, bright, a bit 90s, and a bit futuristic. After watching the music video (twice), I had to look up Neneh Cherry. I was surprised to learn the Swedish star has been making music for over 25 years. Her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, came out in 1989—one year after I was born. Blank Project was released 18 years after her last solo album, Man. Some have already named Blank Project as Neneh’s “comeback” or “return” though she’s been busy collaborating with CirKus, The Thing, and a plethora of other artists. This wasn’t a break or lapse by any means, Neneh has been working the entire time—she just wasn’t in the forefront. Still, Blank Project can stand as a new era for Neneh fans. There’s still a sentiment of Neneh returning, but to the center stage. However, what is Neneh’s relevance when she’s never left? To me, Neneh’s music bypassed my generation. As a result Blank Project is my entrance into Neneh’s music. To me, she hasn’t left, she’s come out like any other debuting artist. To others, Blank Project will be the long awaited album or the “I didn’t know Neneh was still making music!” album. I write this review without placing Neneh anywhere except in the present. I’m not certain how this album fits exactly in the context of Neneh’s previous solo albums, but it’s an album that finds a comfortable niche in the context of 2014.

The entire album was recorded in five days, with help from Four Tet, an electronic musician who’s collaborated with artists like Steve Reid and Thom Yorke, and RocketNumberNine, a synth/drum duo made up of brothers, Ben and Tom Page. Neneh’s voice has an earthy tremolo that quivers swiftly and easily into different ranges. Her voice also has a distinct clarity to it—sharpening at moments when words need to be emphasized and cutting through the instrumentals to reiterate a point. Neneh’s voice reminds me of Merrill Garbus’ (tUnE-yArDs) distinctly textured and creatively accented voice. Their political concerns, urban imagery, and sound-play also place them in the same musical sphere. The stripped down beats in Blank Project are reminiscent of an older electronic style. The minimalistic, straightforward beat often pumps into relentless rhythms that are both tribal and urban. It’s the beat of a tenacious city. It’s the beat of ceremonial pounding drums. It’s easy to see both occupying the same space in Blank Project.

As a songwriter, Neneh interacts with the urban landscape and her experiences as a mother, citizen, wife, and lover to compose lyrics that are vulnerable, sometimes didactic, and above all, forward. There is no single theme for the album—it’s an amalgamation of life experiences. Neneh sings about her daughters, her husband, walking down the street, an unadvisable love, a sweet love, evil corporations, consumerism, and her own music and artistry. Many of the tracks also carry socio-political messages. There’s a concentration on the frustrations with money. There’s also a strong focus on womanhood and the roles of today’s women. In “Cynical,” Neneh randomly slips an awkward PSA on environmental change. This tangent only further shows Neneh’s interest in allowing everything and whatever to inform her songwriting. However, some of the songs, particularly “Cynical” and “Dossier,” seem to be conflicted or confused. Within these tracks are dueling parts that would be better extracted and then reformulated into another track. It may be a product of Neneh’s meandering and sometimes unfocused lyricism or it may be a product of attempting to do so much in a single track that it buckles under its own weight. I would definitely have not complained if Blank Project were a few tracks longer. Regardless, Neneh takes her time with each track. They fade out on their own timelines—most tracks end with 30 seconds or more of the beginning instrumentals. The final track, appropriately titled “Everything,” is over seven minutes long. Moreover, each track consistently showcases Neneh’s cool, spunky swag. She’s street-smart and heart-smart. She shares the wisdom she’s gained from her experience youthfully and stylishly.

For those who loved Neneh Cherry from the beginning, give this a listen because you missed her. For those who, like me, are listening to Neneh for the first time, it’s good enough to warrant you to travel back—to find out who Neneh was in 1989 or 1992 or 1996. Regardless of where this album takes you, I’m certain you’ll learn that Neneh creates from her life and for her life. Neneh reiterates the phrase, “Good things come to those who wait,” in two tracks. This phrase first appears in “Cynical” and later reappears slightly tweaked in the final track of the album, “Everything.” Here, Neneh sings, “If everything is everything, good things come to those who wait, they say.” Neneh certainly waited for the right moment to release Blank Project—this moment informed not by what was asked of her from the outside, but what she asked herself in the privacy of her own experience.

“Don’t think I’m so cynical now. I found my sound.”

1. Across the Water
The first track is about Neneh’s relationship to New York City, motherhood, and memory. Neneh sings, “Since our mother’s gone, it always seems to rain.” Later, “NYC talks to me. Slow like some reruns on my mother’s TV” and “My fear is for my daughters.” The track, both a confession and a reflection, is a curious start to the album. Though its slow, contemplative march doesn’t reflect the tone set by the rest of the album (which may be why it begins the album), “Across the Water” introduces us to the clarity of Neneh’s voice.7.0
2. Blank Project
The drum and bass-driven title track is about a strong, perpetuating love—a love that is so felt, that it invades your world. The track begins, “I got a man, I love him so much. Sometimes, I hate it. Just can’t let go.” Later, Neneh sings, “I feel so small. I hate you, I hate you. I love you, I love you. I love it all.” The heavy bass creates a rushed, angry tone that compliments the lyrics. The final 50 seconds of the track is a relentless countdown to the end.7.5
3. Naked
The darker tone introduced in the previous track is carried over here. Minimalistic and straightforward beats are used again to carry Neneh’s comments on the emptying cycle of working hard without monetary gain. She sings, “I could run a little faster. Maybe I can catch God” and “No sign of any money, but maybe I can make good.” When the chorus hits, Neneh’s voice rises into a surprising, spirited flight. The chorus acts as a provocative shift to the track. The chorus makes this song.8.5
4. Spit Three Times
This track slows down the album. The unhurried, but incessant beat creates a menacing tone that compliments the ritual described in the track. Neneh describes a romantic interest that is unadvisable or even dangerous. She sings, “But you’re like a demon, feeding to satisfy.” While she has “the fever in me,” her love interest is wearing a “clever disguise.” In order to ward off this lover or to protect herself, she must “spit three times over my shoulder.” It’s not a particularly interesting song—the menacing beat plus the menacing content seems like an overdone partnership. It would have been more provocative to package these lyrics in an outfit that matched less.6.5
5. Weightless
Contrary to the title, this track is heavy. The beat sounds like a bass guitar connected to a busted amp. The bass reverberates almost angrily in the second track exclusively about the frustrations with money. Neneh sings quips like “My bank won’t give me another loan” and “spending money like it’s going out of fashion” to comment on consumerism and debt. At an unexpected point, Neneh sings, “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” Though at first the cliché undercuts the track’s seriousness, the cliché reveals Neneh’s playful, meandering mind.7.0
6. Cynical
The funky, peculiar beat in “Cynical” is the most layered beat so far in the album. It’s a track mostly about Neneh’s return to the forefront. She advises, “Good things come to those who wait.” Later, she sings confidently, “Don’t think I’m so cynical now. I found my sound.” In the track’s interlude, Neneh goes on a spunky monologue that prowls through her urban wisdom. At one point, Neneh randomly slips a PSA on recycling and minimizing one’s carbon footprint. The song’s incoherent movement between the contrasting tempos is also disjunctive. This track, ultimately, seems confused. Does this track want to be danced to? Does it want to be social/political fuel? Does it want to be both?6.5
7. 422
Neneh steps on the breaks here. “422” begins with drone-like cymbals and gongs. The ambient melody built from, what seems, a black-key pentatonic scale, transports us out of the urban jungle into a deserted land. Contrasting the quietude of the instrumentals, is a hard-hitting lyricism: “That is just the type of fear that we are fed all through the years by crooked corporate hacks and peers we try to blanket from our ears.” With a reflective and defeated tone Neneh sings statements like “all the bullshit that gets up your nose” and “ all the horseshit is getting too close.” Though this song slows the album’s momentum, its content continues to provide some juice.7.0
8. Out of the Black
With a quicker tempo and almost punchy beat, “Out of the Black,” is a welcomed relief from the previous track. Neneh and Robyn’s voices interact with each other in interesting ways. They go back and forth between verses and meet for the chorus. In the chorus, Robyn sings an octave or so higher than Neneh, making the chorus sound almost off-key, or at the very least, off-kilter. It’s a cool effect that forces you to listen to the content of the chorus. In the end, this seems to be about each pop star’s prerogatives—“These are the facts and here is the news. We just want you to want it too”—and prerogatives both stars playfully address in each other’s company.8.5
9. Dossier
This is the only track where Neneh’s voice opens. “Dossier” is a narrative of a romance—guy gives girl his number, girl doesn’t find the number until she reaches into her coat pocket weeks later, calls him, etc. Neneh pauses after each suspenseful moment in the narrative and at this moment the track speeds up into a danceable electronic foray. Here, Neneh comically sings “drag your booty on the floor” and yes, at this point in the song I want to. Unfortunately, when we leave this part to return to the narrative, I get bored. It’s a theatrical song—a song that has its own song playing in the background. In some way, this sound would be more effective if split in two or if the narrative was integrated into the more memorable part of the instrumental.6.5
10. Everything
This track begins with a fresh, uplifting beat. It’s playful and uses a key built from what sounds like modulated voices. “Everything” provides the spunky lyricism we see earlier in the album—“It’s my reflection, but what’s my name,” “I got my fingers in my ears. I can’t hear you. What I don’t hear, can’t upset me,” and “Don’t touch me, don’t test me”—and the funky, unabashed play with sound we hear in earlier tracks. Neneh even incorporates, what I’d call, “unpleasant” sounds. When Neneh sings “la la la” it’s scratchy and disjunctive. In the last couple minutes of the song, Neneh improvises with sounds including a dolphin call, laughs, intermittent yeahs and uh-uh-uhs. Embedded four minutes into this track, is the only time we get to hear Neneh rap in the album. It’s a solid flow. Uplifting, “Everything” is a good conclusion.8.0
Denver transplant Jenifer Park roll tides at the University of Alabama for her MFA in poetry.



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