ALBUM: Blank Project
ARTIST: Neneh Cherry
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.”