An astonishing 18 years have passed since Swedish pop trailblazer Neneh Cherry last released a solo album. But the predecessor to M.I.A., Santigold and every other genre-bending female artist of the last two decades certainly hasn’t spent the gap relying solely on the royalties from “Buffalo Stance.” As well as guesting on records by 1 Giant Leap, Gorillaz and Kleerup, Eagle-Eye’s sister joined the experimental jazz outfit inspired by her trumpeter father Don, The Cherry Thing, in 2012. She also teamed up with daughter Tyson for two albums’ worth of trip-hop recorded under the guise of Cirkus.
It’s the latter Bristolian sound which largely shapes her belated fourth studio effort Blank Project, a refreshingly raw, urgent and uncompromising record which proves that despite approaching her 50th birthday, Neneh Cherry has lost none of the vigour of her trendsetting youth.
Of course, Cherry’s affiliation with trip-hop goes much further back than perhaps most people remember. Not only did her ground-breaking 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi virtually propel the genre into the mainstream, but she also helped to bankroll Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines, while 1992 sophomore Homebrew featured future Portishead lynchpin Geoff Barrow. But with IDM maverick Four Tet and progressive drum duo Rocketnumbernine on production duties here, Blank Project is far from an exercise in nostalgia.
Indeed, the title track, a highly intense account of a love-hate relationship set to a backdrop of booming industrial drums and twitchy synth-bass, along with the scuzzy jazz rock-meets-minimal techno of “Weightless”, demonstrate that Neneh Cherry is still keen to push boundaries. Likewise the seven-minute finale “Everything,” an avant-garde whirlwind of sounds which collapses in a heap of maniacal laughter, and the glitchy electro of “Naked,” one of several tracks which hint at a menace lurking around the corner.
Blank Project, therefore, is unlikely to see Cherry return to the Grammy-troubling days of the late 80s. But it isn’t entirely devoid of commercial melodic hooks either, as evident by “Out Of The Black,” a sassy synth-pop duet with another Swedish shapeshifter, Robyn, while the brief burst of rapping that appears during the two-step garage/space-funk hybrid of “Dossier” shows she hasn’t completely abandoned her hip-pop roots.
Those who haven’t kept a close eye on Neneh Cherry’s 21st-century career will undoubtedly be quite startled to hear just how challenging Blank Project is. But ultimately, it’s a challenge well worth persevering through.