It’s so early to say this – obviously! – but I doubt I’ll be as surprised (in such a good way) by another album this year. Neneh Cherry’s Black Project is her first solo record in 18 years. She’s experimented over the years, there was that fantastic record with The Thing fairly recently, antecedent to this outpouring, sure. But really it’s hard to imagine actually predicting that Cherry would arrive with this album – right now. And that it could be so good. Her artistry is not in doubt – but Blank Project isn’t so much a brand new album as it is a brand new music. And yet we hear hints of all parts of what has made Cherry such a dynamic performer and writer, the club-bangers and near-anthems, the way the vocals just step up then soar. Take the leap – head out, no fear, seeking a truth. You can even trace in this sound, a sparse nearly post-apocalyptic type of post-punk aspects of what informed Cherry’s earliest experiments as part of The Slits (briefly) and Rip, Rig + Panic.
Blank Project was recorded in just a handful of days and features Cherry singing over rhythms and fuzz created by synth/drum duo, RocketNumberNine. The album’s producer – a sort of conjurer of so much that is visceral in this role – is Kieran Hebden. You know him best by his moniker, Four-Tet. He does a lot of standing back, observing, but he’s a guiding hand too – his touch, his feel is across this; he helps the tunes to appear so weighty, sometimes murky. He gives the tunes his blessing – and that helps them to achieve some sort of sonic weightlessness too. They don’t just waft and drift though, they’re such a fuzziness, a scuzziness to this sound that it’s reminiscent of the first two albums by Tricky. And some of the glimpses of post-punk anger that have crept back into his work from there.
So though RocketNumberNine and Four-Tet, working with semi-improvised and on-the-fly ideas, are crucial aspects of this sound and this record it’s deserving of just Cherry’s name at the time. For she is the star here. She is the one shining. She’s singing a future-jazz that deals in the sorrow of death and grieving, that worries so much about what lies in the past (depression) to inform the future. She can transcend clichés (“lambs to the slaughter”) when passionately sing-speaking them as lines of concern about sending her daughter out into tomorrow’s world.
Her vocals dance around the drum-stomps. She always finds the right space.
Naked features skittering, glitchy post-house electro and then that voice just nails a perfect slice of pop, the wordless melody a hook all on its own, the drums given a chance to sound melodic as they start to work like Cherry’s backing vocalists.
Out of the Black features Robyn and it’s only when you hear them together – a dream pairing – that you realise how Robyn couldn’t have ever worked without Neneh Cherry. It’s a classic track. A ripper that arrives just as you might have a slight concern that the album’s sparse musical arrangements are causing a slight bout of samey-ness.
But the more you listen the more you find fresh pockets, Cynical feels like a great Rip Rig track that’s just had the horns removed. And 422 goes in deep with a rhythm that could have been carved from the leftovers that must pile up whenever Cliff Martinez scores a film. Cherry sounds, here, like the perfect post post-modern torch singer.
Way back when Neneh Cherry was striking the Buffalo Stance – back on Raw Like Sushi it was clear, instantly, that this wasn’t a play-the-game pop star, wasn’t a fit-the-mould rapper. Certainly by the time of 1996’s Man it was clear she wasn’t going to play along with the industry at all. Blank Project announces itself as something new – instantly. And with each new track we find a new revelation.
I hope, after last year’s superb album, Ladi6 is listening to this – it’s where she could go, where she might already be heading. I’d like to hear them work together.
Closing track, Everything, has her throwing every final thing at this record – as petulant and stand-alone as a great track by Yoko Ono, as sure of itself and then aware of the need for a certain kind of uncertainty always. It’s the final masterstroke in what feels, almost immediately, like a masterpiece.
A strange, bold, beautiful, enlivening experience – a genre-less statement that feels so right for right now and hints at a timelessness that, perhaps ironically, only time will be able to tell. But, fuck I love this record. I’m compelled to play it over and over. I’m so happy when I hear this. I’m so happy to have this. A truly remarkable new album.