When an artist takes almost two decades to release their next album, you can usually expect an overproduced heap of something pretty awful (see Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy.) It’s not quite the case for Neneh Cherry, however, who took a whole five days to record Blank Project, her first solo release since 1996’s Man. With Four Tet taking care of the [extremely minimal] production, Blank Project lives up to its title. It’s a canvas that’s barely been sketched in pencil before being presented in a gallery; a leftfield-influenced ten-track collection of percussive-heavy tracks with intelligent lyrics.

Whilst we’ve seen a wave of cool, sophisticated pop stars from Scandinavia of late (MØ, Lykke Li…), Cherry offers it with added wisdom. Fellow purveyor of intelligent, Scandinavian pop Robyn appears on lead single Out Of The Black, which is easily one of the more instantly-accessible moments, both rhythmically and lyrically. Although it’s a long way from With Every Heartbeat, Robyn brings a more light-hearted approach, particularly on a verse where they sing about themselves, “I’m Robyn on the microphone into the speaker, you know I’m not sick like that but I’ve got a fever.” Perhaps the most interesting moment during the duet, however, is the vocal-free middle-8, where the gritty synths give an unexpectedly eccentric performance.

Fans of debut single Buffalo Stance may be initially disappointed with the departure from hip-hop beats, but a closer listen reveals that the more simple elements of them are still there; just slowed down, and sung over rather than rapped. Opener Across The Water throws the listener into one of the album’s starkest moments. The simplest of beats with the odd, and very faint hints of percussion, Cherry’s vocals are clearly the focus and the constant of Blank Project. It’s far from the strongest voice you’ll hear, but it’s an honest one, and one whose stories you’re willing to give your attention to. Until, that is, final track Everything, which sees an outro where Cherry creates noises that lead from off-key “la la las” to something that resembles dying dolphins. The whole album has the unspoilt freshness of demos, but this is something that should definitely have been cut.

But before that, there are several moments where these simple elements produce sparse numbers that still create an atmosphere. The XX-style keys of Naked feature so infrequently it’s easy to forget they’re there at all, as all focus is shifted to a swirling chorus made from more listenable sounds from Cherry’s range. Whatever the tempo of those leftfield beats, whether they’re turned up to dance mode (Dossier – with hints of rap and lines about getting your booty on the floor) or slowed down for a more robotic moment (Spit Three Times), in five days Neneh Cherry and Four Tet have created perhaps the most interesting release this year. On the title track, the vocals layer over each other to add another dimension to the sound, highlighting their craft, and an ability to form so many sounds from so few sources.

And then there’s Weightless, with a grungy guitar loop offering a fuller sound to a track that sings about, “dancing, but I can’t find my right moves.” Will it pave the way for a more generic, expected relese within the next 20 years? Once again, it’s far from polished, but it’s one of many moments that would sound euphoric live, or remixed by DJs and producers from any number of genres. That Blank Project idea again, where it almost feels like this album is only part of what could be an incredibly exciting time for Neneh Cherry’s career.

Blank Project is set for release on 24th February; hit the iTunes link below to buy now:

Words by:
Dan Bull