Neneh Cherry is an international icon. Born in Sweden, raised in punk London by a renowned artist and legendary jazz musician and having toured and lived across the world with an extended family of some of the best musicians and artists around, it’s safe to say that Cherry doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.
Over her more than thirty years in music, Cherry has been a punk, a rapper, an early adopter of trip-hop, a model, a pirate radio DJ, and a television presenter (she had a six-part cooking show called Neneh and Andi Dish It Up on the BBC in 2007). She’s also, of course, an esteemed singer-songwriter. On her newly released fifth album Broken Politics, it’s that version of Cherry, one of pop music’s most underrated writers, that shines through the brightest.
Produced by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet (as was her last album, 2014’s Blank Project), Broken Politicsf showcases, somehow, a new side to Neneh Cherry. Where much of her previous musical output has been direct and in her own words “forceful” -she was in The Slits, after all – Broken Politics is elegant and understated, taking threads from throughout Cherry’s extensive career and weaving them into a nuanced tapestry of a contemporary musician rediscovering her prime.
As the album’s title suggests, the left-wing politics that have always run through Cherry’s music are as present as ever. On tracks like “Shotgun Shack” she laments the growing gun culture across the world, drawing parallels between arms sales to murderous regimes and the continued circulation of guns in poor urban communities. Lead single “Kong,” a collaboration with Massive Attack’s 3D, draws on the inhumanity of the Calais refugee camps. Whereas previously Cherry has addressed topics such as these with understandable and righteous anger on record, on Broken Politics she takes a more reflective approach. On “Kong,” Cherry’s poetic lyricism and gentle command of melody evoke the longing of those stuck in the camps while 3D’s trip-hop tinged instrumental rattles along beneath, hinting at the hell that’s always just around the corner.
It’s that command of melody that sets Broken Politics apart not just from Cherry’s other work but nearly every other album that’s been released this year. On tracks like album opener “Fallen Leaves, ”Cherry conjures silken refrains, her voice lifting and falling with poise, birthing hooks like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Meanwhile, on “Natural Skin Deep” and “Slow Release,” she sings like a member of one of the girl groups her husband, Cameron ‘Booga Bear’ McVey produced in the 2000s; her voice full of attitude and power.
One of the most remarkable things about Broken Politics is its balance – between reflection and retaining the listener’s attention, between the personal and the political, and between Neneh and the album’s producer. While Cherry absolutely deserves to be a pop sensation again after this record, Four Tet’s production has helped get her there. Throughout the album, Hebden’s production is a masterclass in delicacy, intricate but not cluttered, just enough going on each track to draw you in but not so much to distract from Cherry’s voice.
Throughout the album, there are also profoundly personal moments from Cherry, often in the form of skeletal interludes like “Poem Daddy” and “Cheap Breakfast Special.” Comprised of layered voices and background noise, they fit seamlessly into the serene urban soundtrack that the album creates. They also mirror the more personal moments of the songs themselves, echoing the sentiments of tracks like “Deep Vein Thrombosis” with their intimacy.
Still, Broken Politics is not just an album of sparse songs, it has bangers too. As the record reaches its midpoint, tracks like “Faster Than the Truth” recall Cherry’s days as an MC, the former Biggie collaborator spitting a head-spinning series of couplets over the most lo-fi instrumentals of the album. Elsewhere on the album tracks, like “Natural Skin Deep” bring a more experimental flair to the table, with Cherry spinning a brooding R&B melody over a lolloping, air-horn sampling instrumental from Hebden that dissolves into a soaring trumpet solo before bubbling back to life more vibrant than before, bolstered by the fanfare. As the track draws to a close Cherry commands “turn the lights off, bring me some shades.” It’s a small, easily missed reminder of the rap superstar Cherry could have become had the stars aligned differently.
By the time Broken Politics reaches it closing moments on “Soldier,” Cherry has taken the listener through the depths of her career as a musician and back out the other side. Delicate piano builds slowly as the subtle knock of a duke drumline scatters beneath, giving way to a sparse but harmonious chorus, Cherry stating soulfully ‘if you rubbed me any more / you will rub me out/ if you love me every flaw / I will never doubt.” The beat strips back, and background chatter comes through, laughter and celebration denoting the records end. As it fades out you can hear Cherry reclaiming her pirate radio days on Dread Broadcasting Corporation as she declares the studio session is being broadcast “all the way to Streatham.” It’s a final moment of warmth on an album that’s full of them, and a touch of humanity that reminds the listener there’s always more to Neneh Cherry than meets the ear.