Neneh Cherry: Blank Project – review

Those who only know Neneh Cherry's pop hits might be surprised by this decidedly leftfield album, but it's a bold work that suits her well

In the closing moments of her first solo album for 18 years, Neneh Cherry stops singing and starts making a noise. It's a horrible, grating, distressed and distressing noise, even considering the increasingly raw and wilfully off-key vocals that have preceded it: somewhere between a whinny and the bleat of a sheep that's having something unpleasant done to it, the sound bears comparison not with the swaggering rapping of Cherry's 1988 breakthrough hit Buffalo Stance, nor the soft soul stylings of her other big single, Seven Seconds, but with the work of Yoko Ono or cuddly old Diamanda Galas.

As said noise resolves itself into a kind of scream choked with laughter, anyone who last encountered Neneh Cherry in the mid-90s, either duetting with Youssou N'Dour or performing the 1995 Comic Relief single Love Can Build a Bridge in the company of Cher, Chrissie Hynde and Eric Clapton, might be forgiven for feeling slightly disconcerted. Then again, they might have been prepared for Blank Project's finale by the rest of the album, which opens with a doleful rumination on the death of Cherry's mother set to nothing other than equally doleful drums, and has a title track that features Cherry singing about her menstrual cycle over a punishing electronic bassline, clattering live percussion and something that sounds vaguely like the ringing of an old-fashioned cash register: "28th day, he is my victim", she notes of the effect of her ovarian hormones on her partner. It does give the impression of being an album during which someone might start screaming in an avant-garde manner – conceivably the fan of Cherry's Manchild or Kisses on the Wind who's bought Blank Project expecting more of the same.

Had they been paying attention to recent developments in Cherry's career, they would have known that Blank Project – screaming, menstruation and all – very much represents the more commercial side of her latterday work. It was preceded by the Cherry Thing, a collaboration with Norwegian/Swedish free jazz trio The Thing, which featured bracingly skronky versions of Dirt by the Stooges and Suicide's Dream Baby Dream. Whatever else Cherry has been up to since she was last on Top of the Pops, she clearly hasn't spent much time worrying about how to reignite her relationship with the upper end of the charts.

Blank Project, produced by Keiren Hebden of Four Tet, is a far less challenging listen than that, and indeed a less challenging listen than its edited highlights might suggest. The contrast between Cherry's pop years and what she does now is pretty striking. She must be the only artist in history to have recorded with Stock, Aitken and Waterman and a free jazz ensemble – unless of course tapes emerge of Big Fun jamming with Peter Brötzmann's Clarinet Project – but there's a sense that it represents less a wild left turn than a return to her roots. She began her career on the radical post-punk fringes, singing with the Slits, the New Age Steppers and anarchic jazz-funk band Rip Rig and Panic. That may be one of the reasons Blank Project largely works so well.

There are occasional flashes of her old pop self in her streetwise depiction of New York's darker side that opens Everything, in the burst of rapping that erupts midway through Dossier, and in Naked's warped take on electronic funk – but Cherry sounds utterly at home amid the album's rattling live drums, played with a distinctly jazzy swing by Rocketnumbernine's Tom Page, and propulsive low-end electronics courtesy of Page's brother Ben, as well she might. This simultaneously tumultuous and stark musical backdrop also fits the songs, which frequently suggest all has not been well in Cherry's world over recent years. Motherhood is framed in terms of disquiet about her children's future, the ominous pulse of Spit Three Times bearing lyrics about neurosis and depression: "Monkeys on my back … black dogs in the corner."

Hebden's production, meanwhile, keeps alighting on subtle details. He knows exactly when to add a brief smudge of dubby reverb to Cherry's voice, or to introduce a burst of percussion that sounds as if it's being played right next to your ear: the appearance of a tambourine or a cowbell has rarely sounded as startling as it does here. But for all the contributions of others, Blank Project is Cherry's show. Whatever's going on around her, she feels like a commanding presence at its centre. Rather than a middle-aged artist who's drafted in a load of hip collaborators in a bid for contemporaneity, it sounds organic (it was apparently born out of improvisation) and moreover, Cherry is audibly in charge: even at her most vulnerable, there's a certain edgy, don't-mess attitude to her voice.

There are moments where the sonic and emotional weight of Blank Project feels a little crushing: the serene beauty of Bullshit – it's more serene and beautiful than its title suggests – comes as a welcome respite, and the album could have done with more moments like it. But that's a minor quibble about a bold and adventurous album. The woman who crash-landed in the public consciousness by appearing on Top of the Pops while seven months pregnant is clearly still a formidable figure.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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