Nika Danilova (Zola Jesus) Talks Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project

Neneh Cherry’s first solo record in nearly 20 years, produced by Four Tet? How could you not feel the excitement and anticipation of what such a...

Neneh Cherry’s first solo record in nearly 20 years, produced by Four Tet? How could you not feel the excitement and anticipation of what such a collaboration might yield? The potential of her smartly written songs matched with his equally unique, forward-thinking production could create amazing results. Not saying the actual product isn’t great, but I’m multiple listens deep and I still wish there was more.

The record opens with “Across the Water” — nothing but a tight percussive knock and Cherry’s bare vocals. One of the bravest openings to a record I’ve heard in a long time. It’s truly refreshing to hear someone boil down a song to the pure essentials, and not a stitch of extra. Now, I’m all for minimalism and finding power through the fewest elements but when you think of Four Tet production, never would you think of a live band. On Blank Project, you hear guitar and live drums more than the glitchy collage electronics you’d expect. Cherry’s vocals sound like they were recorded live with the band instead of overdubbed in a studio vocal booth. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly contributes to the raw, seemingly unedited feeling of the songs.

As a disclaimer, I may be unduly critical of certain aspects. I’ve been in the studio mixing my own record, and it’s impossible to listen to other music without noticing even the finest details of the recordings. I’m not only listening to the songs, but the nuts and bolts behind them, squinting to hear the minutiae of the EQ, reverb, and delay choices. How much compression are they using? Are they using soft synths or hardware? Was it all in the box or through a board? It’s not something I usually consider when listening to a record, but being in the studio has tuned my brain more towards the mechanics of a sound, and heightened my curiosity about the technical prowess of a recording.

Cherry has always had a unique voice as a songwriter. From her breakout 1988 single “Buffalo Stance,” it was clear she was operating in a world all her own. She had the immediacy of Swedish pop, and the experimental nature bestowed from her father, legendary avant-garde jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. This dichotomy of influence has made her music bold and undeniably catchy through the years. “Naked,” one of the most tuneful tracks on Blank Project, has that familiar Neneh Cherry vibe: a distorted electronic beat mixed with live drums supports her mix of emcee and jazz-tinged vocals. Mid-tempo burner “Out of the Black” features a guest appearance of fellow Swedish pop star Robyn, which is one of those perfectly fitting collaborations you could only ever hope for. It’s fun to hear Robyn in a different context, as she sings along to vocal melodies ostensibly written by Cherry.

Songwriting aside, Blank Project did take me by surprise as I held my studio geek magnifying glass up to the mix. Maybe I had too much expectation going into this, given my excitement about Four Tet’s hand in the mixing and production process. Don’t get me wrong; the record sounds cohesive, and with a clear manifesto of keeping the atmosphere firmly tangible and live-sounding. I can appreciate the attempt at making an “electro-acoustic” sound that channels Cherry’s punk and electronic/hip hop roots into a distinct personality.

But I still feel the mix is missing the true punch of the best punk records, or the beats of the best hip-hop. It seems to lie too much in the middle. For instance, in the song “Weightless,” there’s a crunchy bass line that feels dirty and unhinged. As a listener, I want to feel that bass ring deep through my bones, like the raunchiest hardcore punk, or the heaviest Lex Luger 808’s. But instead it just sounds thin, especially compared to the awkwardly loud and dry cowbell. It seems to me like they only had a short time to record and mix everything and didn’t have time to thoroughly give all the songs proper attention.

That’s unfortunate, because the songs certainly have legs, and Cherry herself is in fine form here. Even on the verge of turning 50, Neneh’s still got it. Her sensibilities still feel wholly intuitive. As she sings, her voice often floats off if in flurried moments of improvisation, such as at the end of “Everything.” You never feel like she is making any compromises in her art, and fully enjoys every step of the process. Her lyrics are poetically confessional, as she sings about overcoming negativity on “Cynical.” Unequivocally, the most beautiful song is the lush, unfolding “422.” Synth pads resonate into a drone-like wash with rolling cymbals and a loose kick as Cherry whirs about age and the passage of time. It feels mature and wistful.

The collaboration between Cherry and Four Tet makes admirable attempts at infusing electronics with a human pulse by using a live band. But my ear wants to hear them take that concept several steps deeper. Maybe my expectations were too high to ever really allow it to live up to the potential, or maybe Four Tet was taking his role as producer seriously, and serving Cherry’s vision more than his own. Regardless, it’s still a good record that I find myself keep wanting to turn back to. And hey, anything new from Neneh Cherry after almost 20 years is exciting to hear.

Nika Danilova records under the name Zola Jesus. You can follow her on Twitter here.