Neneh Cherry's Unlikely Comeback Continues With 'Blank Project'

Strictly speaking, Neneh Cherry is a one-hit wonder. Twenty-five years after it was released, "Buffalo Stance," the funky first single from her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, isn't just the song she's best known for—it's the only Neneh Cherry song most people know, if they can name her at all. It's one of the defining hits of the late 1980s, but nothing else from Sushi or its two follow-ups, Homebrew (1992) and Man (1996), came close to matching the commercial and cultural impact of "Buffalo Stance." It's generally presumed that the lackluster response to those next two albums prompted Cherry to withdraw from the spotlight.

But Cherry's new album—her first solo disc in 18 years—is the second part of a major comeback effort that should help put her entire career in a new perspective. Blank Project, released this week on Smalltown Supersound, comes just two years after The Cherry Thing, Cherry's collaboration with the Stockholm-based jazz trio the Thing. That album featured Cherry vamping over the Thing's brawny power-trio jazz-rock on a couple of original songs and radical covers of material by Suicide, the Stooges, Madvillain, Ornette Coleman, Martina Topley-Bird, and Cherry's stepfather, the late jazz trumpeter and composer Don Cherry.

The partnership made a kind of poetic sense—the Thing takes its name from a Don Cherry song, and the band's first album, from 2000, was made up entirely of Cherry songs. Cherry has deep roots in Sweden herself—she spent time there as a child and emigrated there from London in the mid '00s.

But The Cherry Thing was more than just a neat biographical and geographical confluence. It was one of the unexpected highlights of 2012, revealing Cherry as a nimble and expressive jazz singer. Her declamatory half-raps on the album owe less to her background in hip-hop than to traditional jazz vocal styles. Her voice is slightly earthier than it was two decades ago, but just slightly—it's still clear, precise, and agile, an atmospheric counterpoint to the thudding avant funk of the Thing.

More than anything, though, The Cherry Thing was a welcome reintroduction and reminder. It was, in many ways, unlike anything Cherry had done before, but it also felt like the logical place for her to have ended up. You could imagine a hypothetical discography that led, through the late '90s and into the '00s, from Raw Like Sushi to The Cherry Thing. It was also, for me, one of those rare albums that sounded both novel and familiar the first time I heard it. There was nothing especially new about any of its component parts, but the fullness of its soulful, heavy grooves and its probing, insightful interpretations hit a particular sweet spot.

Despite the fact that it's credited solely to Cherry, Blank Project is just as much a collaboration as The Cherry Thing. That doesn't diminish Cherry's contribution—the moody, jazzy, funky vibe of the album, similar to The Cherry Thing, is clearly a result of her creative vision, and her voice has an even more central role here. (Producer Four Tet, who not coincidentally released an album of Cherry Thing remixes in 2012, reportedly took a hands-off approach in the studio.) But the twitchy, anxious grooves and dub-like tone of the new album come largely from the production duo RocketNumberNine. More than Cherry's songs, it's the duo's music tracks, a forceful but unfussy mix of electronic and live instruments, that distinguish Blank Project from its predecessor. Still groovy, it's darker and nervier than The Cherry Thing, replacing that album's free-jazz explosiveness with woozy slabs of bass and vertiginous rhythms. (If there's a helpful point of reference, it's the Swedish electronic art-pop duo the Knife.)

Even as it takes a step toward the kinds of music that have infiltrated Top 40 in recent years—dub and European club music, in particular—there's no chance that Cherry will get another crossover hit out of Blank Project. It's a daunting album, even less immediately approachable than The Cherry Thing, maybe. The most straight-up pop moment here, "Out of the Black," featuring Swedish star Robyn, pairs a haunting synth hook with a thick, ominous, seasick bassline. But Blank Project has an irresistible attraction, like a whirlpool—there's no escape from its pull.