The past 10 years of pop music have Neneh Cherry’s fingerprints all over them, from the unruly conglomerations of genres that have come to define much of the Hot 100 to the uncountable number of female singers who’ve borrowed directly or indirectly from the club-diva-meets-art-school-b-girl playbook that made a smash out of her 1988 single “Buffalo Stance”. It’s become painfully obvious that her status as a one-hit wonder has far less to do with her talents than how far she was ahead of her time.
Cherry’s early work has aged well. In 2012, she returned from a hiatus initiated after the back to back flops of the alt-rock-leaning follow-ups to her 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi (1996’s Man didn’t even get a U.S. release) with an album-length collaboration with the Scandinavian experimental jazz outfit the Thing that leaned heavy on dissonant avant-funk and turned the cliche of the club diva’s late-career “jazzy” phase on its ear. A companion collection of remixes, including one by Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, followed. That crossing of paths has now led to Cherry album produced by Hebden that finally finds her returning to the basic—and hard to improve upon—combination of vocals and beats.
Blank Project isn’t a roaring, triumphant return to form. Instead it’s understated to the extreme, a master class in the ways in which simple pleasures can become fascinatingly deep. The opening track, “Across the Water”, is simply Cherry singing over a bracingly austere drum arrangement, with zero in the way of melodic accompaniment. Between her rich, unembellished voice and emotional performance it’s somehow more overwhelming than most songs that have full orchestral backing.