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Neneh Cherry - Broken Politics Music Album Reviews

On her second consecutive album produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, the ever-adventurous former pop star takes on the moment’s social upheaval by getting personal.

Neneh Cherry’s fifth album in 30 years is called Broken Politics, a reflection of the ebullience lost in realizing that our politics have always been that way. Nearly three decades ago, Cherry topped international and stateside charts with “Buffalo Stance,” a diva dance and hip-hop hybrid that, like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising the same year, heralded bursts of color in every sense. On her second album in four years to be produced by Four Tet mastermind Kieran Hebden, Cherry creates a dozen landscapes where chimes and samples of various ringing objects act as reminders of other ways of living—offering, if not a way out of politics altogether, then at least a way of relying on our own devices.

Fans expecting an amalgam of Hebden’s beguiling microscopic electro-jingles or Cherry’s enduring exuberance won’t hear it here. Many of these dozen imagistic self-avowals have a discouraging sameness. So fluent is their collaboration that their weaknesses become complementary. Cherry’s melodies aren’t often up to Hebden’s beats, and his beats are frequently too genteel for Cherry’s ambivalence. Many tracks work at the three-minute mark but get tiresome by four. When the pair get contemplative, as they often do, it’s like watching numerators and denominators cancel each other out.

Yet when Broken Politics’ material matches the record’s title, it triggers a sense of unease, a tentative awareness of danger, like smelling something burning in the kitchen. “Natural Skin Deep,” the album’s strongest track, begins with mumbles, an anticipatory din before Hebden loops a steel drum and a percussive throb reminiscent of another Cherry collaborator, Tricky. Cherry sings the hook, “My love goes on and on,” with the tone of someone trying to cheer herself up or at least match the the mournful bleat of the accompanying Ornette Coleman sample. On “Deep Vein Thrombosis,” named after the blood clotting of a limb vein, Cherry’s verses are intentionally occluded. She follows “Like a female dog’s got a name/Life’s a bitch” with “How fragile is a life that can have everything now, too.” Meanwhile, Hebden and co-writers Cameron McVey and John Tonks pluck, trigger, and otherwise render a low thrum on guitar and piano over a shaker. Their efforts score a glimpse at an imagination too unquiet for coherence.

Broken Politics also contains moments when Cherry’s lyrical shorthand and Hebden’s discrete units of sound cohere into something bigger. Using a wall-of-sound approach to flutes in “Slow Release,” Hebden turns Cherry into a high, yearning wind instrument, much like the sliced-and-diced vocal of 2010’s “Angel Echoes.” “Slow release, no pressure, no pressure,” she affirms, perhaps a comment on her own leisurely recording career. Like Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road,” she carves a space where politics, broken or otherwise, don’t intrude on her thoughts—a temporary luxury at best. On “Kong,” Massive Attack’s 3D adds the hi-hats and synthesized rumbles of his former band to a lurking piano line, momentarily recalling the 1994 set piece “Karmacoma.” At the peak of Clintonism and the dawn of New Labour, Cherry’s confrères could afford the comas; with the world on fire, “goddamn guns and guts and history,” as Cherry puts it, have caught up to us. The effect is like stepping out of a burrow onto a prairie.

The crucial transatlantic precursor to Massive Attack—whose “Unfinished Sympathy” used strings, percussive loops, and Shara Nelson’s vocals for well-drawn melancholy as the basis for a remapping of Raw Like Sushi’s “Manchild” two years later—Neneh Cherry deserves bouquets, or, better extended appraisals. Her last record, the rumbling Blank Project, anticipated the current climate by four years. The thought of a hit such as “Kisses on the Wind” saving us all is like believing in the Easter Bunny, and, at 54, it’s not Cherry’s aim, anyway. Amid our tumultuous news cycles, the unevenness of Broken Politics is the best she can do, and it’s enough.

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