Neneh Cherry’s first solo album in 18 years sounds nothing like the work of an artist who’s had massive worldwide pop hits, as Cherry has. Nor does it sound anything like most so-called alternative records. Accompanied by Rocketnumbernine, a duo of London brothers on drum set and synths who play techno-rave riffs as if they were garage rock and experimental jazz, Cherry sing-songs simple tunes with a cadence that suggests hip-hop, Beat poetry and the kind of lullabies parents improvise to put their kids to sleep.
Blank Project is all about Cherry’s restless presence, her streetwise inflections, her uniquely international diction, the way, at 49, this Swedish-Sierra Leonean woman who’s lived in Stockholm, London, New York and elsewhere still sings as if she’s a pre-teen singing secrets to herself while skipping rope in a city park. Produced by Four Tet, Blank Project was recorded and mixed in five days and accordingly sounds — to paraphrase Cherry’s biggest album — rawer than sushi, as if the fish were still alive, as if the music is still being made while you’re listening to it, as if she’s still dreaming it up as it moves from her lips to your ears.
Rarely is there any kind of electronic effect on her vocals, which are often soft but mixed high. Percussive yet thoughtful, she spins rhymes and threadbare, nearly-a cappella melodies that sync with the steady but ever-shifting rhythms far behind her but only tangentially relate to the keyboards’ discordant drones. Her poetry is simultaneously abstract and direct, personal and political. “Maybe I did go far, maybe I did catch you/ I am like a go cart, full of the love of so many,” goes one of her typically atypical lines in “Naked,” a song that combines themes of sociology, artistic creation, and the struggle to keep a roof over one’s head.
Dance-pop star Robyn pops up to trade lines with Cherry on “Out of the Black.” “I fear what’s gone before will come right back and slap me,” sings Cherry. “You know I’m not sick like that but I’ve got a fever,” answers Robyn, like the two of them are just talking and you’re in the room with them and there’s no distance between anybody. Instead, there’s a closeness that’s both unsettling and inviting. That’s Blank Project.