Smalltown Supersound STS343CD
Neneh Cherry had a hit in 1989 with “Buffalo Stance,” a track from her first album, Raw Like Sushi, but since then her career has been eclectic and experimental. In addition to her solo recordings she’s been a member of the trip-hop band cirKus, and has worked with the Swedish jazz trio The Thing as well as the post-punk band The Slits. Her last album, Blank Project (2014), was bracing and complex, the kind of work that demands close attention and yields deep rewards.
Cherry’s new release, Broken Politics, is more approachable but still challenging. Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, was in the producer’s chair, as he was for Blank Project. Beats and textures abound, but Cherry’s voice and poetic, evocative lyrics remain at the center of her music. Her subject is our fractured world, but she presents an ideal of hope even in moments of despair. In “Fallen Leaves,” she sings, “I can see it clearly / Every little detail / Crystal clear and dread.” Striking images continue throughout the song, but Cherry also sings, “Just because I’m down / Don’t step all over me.”
The strong beat at the center of “Fallen Leaves” is accompanied by keyboard washes and the beguiling sound of a harp, Cherry’s voice carrying a sense of urgency without over-emoting. “Kong,” coproduced by Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja, has a stomping bass line accompanied by a sound of static that runs through the track. A tinkling piano plays behind Cherry’s unhurried voice as she presents a picture of colonialism (“Goddamn god and guts and history”) and Europe’s convulsions from the refugee crisis. A splashing hi-hat and expansive keyboard effects carry the song forward.
“Shot Gun Shack” paints a haunting picture of the impact of gun violence, and the spare accompaniment -- a drum beat, a simple bass line, and keyboards -- keep the focus on the disturbing imagery. Cherry’s poetic sense is so sure that she can use repetition to create the feeling of claustrophobic helplessness that the issue of gun violence creates in us. Cherry’s subject on this album is politics in the world at large, but in “Faster than the Truth” she reflects on the politics of relationships. She raps over a martial drum beat in the beginning of the track, then shifts into a melodic vocal section, then back.
“Natural Skin Deep” opens with the sound of sirens, followed by a blast on an air horn. Other sounds swirl around Cherry as she starts to sing, including what may be a steel drum. Her expressive singing carries the song along until a break that includes a sample of Ornette Coleman’s “Growing Up.” The track is driving and forceful, but her nuanced singing provides a contrast to all the busyness.
Broken Politics is filled with details that grab the ear and pull the listener into the music. A short keyboard line snaps “Kong” into focus around Cherry’s voice, and the simple hi-hat that runs throughout works with the bass line to give this track rhythmic force. Professor Karl Berger’s vibraphone adds to the calm of “Synchronised Devotion,” working effectively with a simple piano line. Hebden has given Broken Politics an aural richness that makes returning to it a pleasure -- new things pop up with every play. He’s also given Cherry’s voice remarkable clarity, keeping it at the center of the music even in the heavily detailed “Natural Skin Deep.”
After “Buffalo Stance,” Neneh Cherry could have continued to pursue pop hits -- but circumstances and her restless musical spirit have taken her in a more challenging direction. Broken Politics is filled with poetic insights, wonderful melodies, and the confidence of an artist who knows what she’s doing. Taking in everything from jazz to trip-hop and beyond, it works on every level.
. . . Joseph Taylor