Review Summary: Blank Project overflows with daring experimentation, but its tremendous appeal also lies in Cherry's intensely personal musings that lend the record its emotional heft.
Nanah Cherry's 1990s output was immensely influential as she pioneered the fusion of pop, soul and rap, setting the stage for the likes of Destiny's Child, All Saints and Lauryn Hill. Eighteen long years may have passed since her last solo release, but the Swedish-born singer has never lost track of new trends. Rather than rehashing old ideas, the artist's new album harkens back to last year's The Cherry Thing
, a cutting-edge collection of covers that saw her collaborating with Scandinavian jazz trio The Thing. Blank Project
shares that record's improvisatory aesthetic, but also explores the artist's deeply intimate songwriting.
The main draw with Cherry has always been her willingness to experiment with new sounds and textures. Recorded in mere five days, Blank Project
is no exception as it juxtaposes effervescent electronica with a primal authenticity of the singer's vulnerable performance. In lieu of relying on overblown orchestral backing, producer Kieran 'Four Tet' Hebden strips the songs back to bare essentials, leaving only their rhythmic core augmented with idiosyncratic sonic embellishments. Almost every element of the sound is electronically manipulated, but the drums and Cherry's limber, emotionally charged voice remain cleanly recorded. The album's futuristic minimalism is executed with formidable precision by the congenial London duo RocketNumberNine whose cooperation with Cherry revolves around a stark contrast between raw, convention-defying arrangements and profoundly affecting vocal melodies. Needless to say, the result's a riveting collection of audacious pop songs.
Opener 'Across the Water' reflects on mortality over sparse drumbeats to truly gut-wrenching effect when the singer mourns “Since mother's gone, it always seems to rain.” The title track expands the album's sonic palette through eerie trip-hop leanings as Cherry laments over a tumultuous relationship. Conjuring up a sinister atmosphere, 'Spit Three Times' wallows in depression and dark symbolism. “Black dogs in the corner holding me down,” she scowls against a subdued pulsating backdrop. Meanwhile, 'Weightless' centers on a free-floating spirituality with a fuzzed-out bass line, discordant cowbell and elusive lyricism. 'Cynical' is a dynamic drum-and-bass entry that showcases the singer's versatility as she assuredly raps and sings “Don’t think I’m so cynical now / I’ve found my sound.” On 'Out of the Black', Cherry teams up with Robyn to craft a comforting electro-pop anthem. While this is easily the most traditional song on the disc, the wobbly closer 'Everything' is decidedly off-kilter featuring eccentric vocalizations on top of ambient soundscapes.
These perpetually shape-shifting tracks wouldn't work nearly as well if they were performed by any other 49-year-old pop star. That's why, Neneh Cherry is such a singular artist, revitalizing her career with a modern outing that could grant any young singer supreme accolade. Blank Project
overflows with daring experimentation, but its tremendous appeal also lies in Cherry's intensely personal musings that lend the songs their emotional heft. Integrating gutsy inventiveness with great maturity, the album captures the artist in scintillating form.