The Cherry Thing
Welcoming Back the Uncompromising Neneh Cherry
I promised never to lie to you in this column.
Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. is meant to be a running guide to my life as a musical obsessive. It’s intended to give you some idea of what it's like to be me, and that means sharing even the most embarrassing songs and albums I end up loving. I’ve copped to being a Hanson fan, I’ve talked about my soft spot for Michael W. Smith, and I’ve mentioned that I think Ylvis’ “The Fox” is one of the best songs of last year. I’m pretty candid.
For some reason, though, I’m always a little hesitant to talk about how much I like Coldplay. They get no respect from critics, and I think I’m expected to fall in line on that one, reacting negatively to their uber-popularity and Chris Martin’s leaden lyrics. But I can’t. I’ve always liked them, and I’ve enjoyed every one of their records, particularly the latter ones. I don’t even think this is an indefensible position – Coldplay is a restlessly experimental pop band, much more interesting than they need to be, considering their place as one of the biggest groups in the world.
Still, I feel like someone’s going to come take my critic card away for admitting to enjoying their work. Coldplay is remarkably divisive, but the division is usually between pop radio fans and “serious,” discerning music consumers. That’s odd to me, since Coldplay is exactly what I want from the biggest pop bands on earth. They’re constantly scanning the underground for new inspiration, and always shaking up their sound, trying new things and throwing curve balls. Just listen to all of Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, their all-over-the-place fourth album. This is not the work of artless airplay whores.
So I’m compelled here to tell you that Coldplay’s just-announced sixth album, Ghost Stories, is one of my most anticipated records of 2014. And I’m glad to give you two reasons why, in the form of the two songs released so far. First is “Midnight,”one of the least Coldplay-sounding Coldplay songs ever. It’s little more than a shimmering electronic pulse, with a ghostly melody that repeats three times. It never “kicks in,” never gets to an emotional catharsis. It’s five minutes of reflective, restrained, fascinating atmosphere. I’m particularly fond of the wordless vocal section after the second verse, and the circular synths that radiate in around 3:30.
If that alone doesn’t make you wonder just what kind of Coldplay album this is going to be, there’s the official first single, “Magic.” It's a subtle piece of electronic soul, sticking to two chords and some understated piano for about half its running time. The song builds convincingly, though, through a pair of sweet choruses and into a bigger section with ringing, chiming guitars. What’s interesting is that it still sounds nothing like Coldplay, but in a completely different way than “Midnight.”
Most of the time, I’m able to figure out what kind of record to expect from a couple of early song releases. This time? No idea. These two songs are nothing alike, and feel like uncharted territory for the band. If the rest of Ghost Stories is similarly diverse and experimental, I will have no trouble telling you all how much I love it. As I’ve said before, Coldplay doesn’t have to be this weird. They’re one of the most popular bands on the planet, and they could just keep sticking to what works and cashing the checks. That they create songs like “Midnight” and “Magic” despite all that earns them my respect.
Ghost Stories is out on May 19.
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When people talk about the fusion of rap, rock and pop that occurred in the 1990s, I’m surprised that Neneh Cherry is rarely a part of that conversation.
Cherry first burst onto the scene in 1989 with “Buffalo Stance,” the hit single from her snazzy debut, Raw Like Sushi. But it was her second album, 1991’s Homebrew, that truly blazed trails. Cherry easily danced between styles on this record, one of the most underrated of that decade, rapping with Guru of Gang Starr on one track and singing with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. on another. Songs like “I Ain’t Gone Under Yet” presaged the rap-soul of Lauryn Hill by years, and when she dug into deeper, more ambient pieces like “Peace in Mind,” she was unlike anyone else around.
Which is probably why the album sank like a stone. Cherry made another record four years later, called Man, that was never released in the United States. And then she quit her solo career entirely, spending some time with a band called CirKus in the 2000s and only emerging to lend vocals to a collaborative record with jazz group The Thing in 2012. She’s remained a fascinating, idiosyncratic artist, but we haven’t had a true statement from her in 18 years. And for someone who predicted many of the pop music innovations of the past decade and a half, that’s a shame.
That’s why I’m so pleased to have Blank Project, Cherry’s first album since ’96. Its existence was a complete surprise, its announcement out of the blue. As always, Cherry does her own thing – this record was put together in five days, with production from Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden and musical contributions from RocketNumberNine. Its title and muted cover image give the impression that the album is no big deal, despite the long wait, but this turns out to be false modesty. It is, of course, nothing whatsoever like her seminal work from the ‘90s. It’s also nothing like anything else you’ll hear this year.
Blank Project is an electro-pop record, but it’s a minimal and haunted one. Cherry’s voice is still arresting and soulful, but her songs this time are skeletal things that require multiple listens to appreciate. The sound is gritty, mixing beautifully recorded organic drums with fuzzy synths, often just playing bass lines. There are choruses, but they’re not immediate ones. You probably won’t end up dancing to this, but a song like “Weightless” will make you move. This is a soundtrack for hard runs in the rain, dark and jerky with sharp edges.
In its own way, this album is just as innovative as Homebrew, smashing pop, jazz, soul, electro and rock into new shapes. This kind of sonic adventurousness is more common now than it was in the ‘90s, but somehow Cherry has made something bracing and unique anyway. The record begins with its starkest track – “Across the Water” is nothing but subtle percussion and Cherry’s voice, reminding you how much you missed it. She mourns her mother here, who died in 2009, and looks to the future, which the remaining nine songs depict.
There really isn’t anything else quite like the other nine songs. In other hands, “Cynical” could have been a club hit, its chorus all but demanding four-on-the-floor beats and swirling synths. Instead, we get live drums and minimal bass burbles, and nothing else. The dissonant breakdown finds Cherry half-rapping over harsh keyboards. “422” is a jazzy drum beat supporting a droning organ, while Cherry hits new vocal heights: “If we believe the rain has come to search us out, then we can take the pain, of this there is no doubt…”
Dance-pop star Robyn puts in a surprise guest appearance on “Out of the Black,” one of the most straightforward tunes here. Their voices sort of rub up against each other uncomfortably, while the drums pound out a relentless beat and the synths get fuller. It’s one of the oddest guest turns I’ve heard in some time. Blank Project concludes with the seven-minute “Everything,” built on a repeating sample and an infectious melody. It’s this album’s version of a joyous playout, conjuring a sense of dance-around-the-room excitement while remaining as minimal as everything else.
It’s so very good to have an artist like Neneh Cherry back. I’d often imagined what new work from her would be like, and it’s a tribute to her idiosyncrasy that Blank Project sounds like nothing I could have predicted. As always, she’s looking years down the line here, to a time when electro-jazz-pop-rock-soul-dance-minimalism is a thing. This is a tough and uncompromising record, one that takes some time to really love. But I wouldn’t have expected anything else from Neneh Cherry. I hope this record puts her back in the spotlight, and makes her part of the conversation. She deserves it.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.