Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Conventional reviews have been few and far between on this blog for awhile, and that has been intentional. Nonetheless, I still have a keen interest in doing some more work with music on occasion, so expect a stronger flow of them throughout the coming week as I work through some previously written material I didn’t want to publish at first.
For its first three and a half minutes, Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project is about as minimal as you can get. A spare drum beat and Cherry’s svelte voice make a lonely pair, leaving the listener plenty of space to contemplate her verses. These words, like many of the lyrics on the album, express both resignation and a will to endure. Though the music of later tracks blooms into much richer and more active life, you don’t find any manifestos or calls to arms on this album. Instead, Blank Project is a plea for enough space and time to cool off and ponder life’s more unpleasant moments.
For example, one of the more memorable motifs on the album is the bed. On more than a few occasions, the bed is associated with escape and rest. On the penultimate song, “Dossier,” she tells a story of an awkward chap who finds the courage to give his phone number to a woman he fancies. In concluding their story, she sings, “Now they meet every night beside their beds, and clean their teeth before they climb into their heads.” Cherry reportedly wrote the songs for this album in her bedroom, adding some biographical poignancy to the already fertile idea of the bed as a space for dreaming whether awake or asleep.
Of course, Cherry’s is not the only creative mind involved in the project. While the first track, “Across the Water,” features minimal production, the rest of the album bears the distinct mark of collaborators RocketNumberNine and producer Four Tet. Both of these acts have long been part of the British underground. RocketNumberNine’s improvisatory soundscapes, which meld house beats with jazz-inflected drums and droning synths, are best exemplified by “Weightless.” This song, built around a scathing guitar riff and rapid-fire drum beats, finds Cherry contemplating anxiety and feelings of awkwardness. “I keep on dancing but I don’t fit the right shoes” she sings, “and I’m weightless.” While her voice can be too airy on the more barren tracks, here the richness of her singing perfectly contrasts with the jagged instrumental background. No matter how chaotic the situation gets, her singing maintains its poise and remove, reinforcing the album’s observational tone.
“Weightless” proceeds right into “Cynical,” another one of The Blank Project’s stronger compositions. Dominated by a brooding bass groove, the song’s main refrain–“Don’t think I’m so cynical now/I’ve found my ground”–echoes plaintively over the song’s percussive jitters. Four Tet shows his expertise here, keeping each of the song’s many elements distinct while letting them play off of each other. For instance, Cherry’s vocals echo into the distance, starting as intense statements before merging into the rhythms of the song. Though the song repeats itself once too often, it smoothly compensates for it with its danceable hook and a synth-washed breakdown. When Cherry and her collaborators clear the drums away and let the ambience take control, “Cynical” announces its triumph over cynicism more clearly than it could express in words.
When her career began in the 1990s, Neneh Cherry made her name working in the British underground. Though trip hop has faded from prominence and a thousand fads and trends have either disappeared or gone mainstream, Blank Project proves that the darker side of London still has a powerful voice to share with the pop music world. In “Out of the Black,” Swedish pop star Robyn sings a duet with Cherry, bringing the two Swedish pop stars and their hip British comrades into a place both in touch with the past and looking toward the future. After eighteen eventful years, Neneh Cherry is “back,” and though her music and message are more subdued, they resonate just as strongly as before.