How do we conduct ourselves in extraordinary times? By what metric do we judge our own capacity to make change? In an era where the signal-to-noise ratio is more uneven than ever, what are the measures we must take to retain and remember our own personhood? Neneh Cherry's extraordinary fifth solo album, Broken Politics, asks these questions and more -- searching for answers, patiently and with great care, and with a fearlessness to acknowledge that sometimes the answers don't even exist. It's a record that's equal parts angry, thoughtful, melancholy, and emboldening, as Cherry and her collaborators continue to expand her ever-widening sonic palette to craft truly singular and potent music.
Work on Broken Politics began as touring wound down behind Cherry's previous full-length, 2014's Blank Project, as she felt a drive to continue creating after collaborating on that record with Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and production duo Rocketnumbernine. "That last album was much angrier and forceful, whereas this one is quieter and more reflective," she states. "I haven't always been so good at getting things out so quickly, and it still took a while -- but that's okay." After a studio session of writing and refining with longtime partner and collaborator Cameron McVey, Cherry sent some demos to Hebden as he was flying back to New York after attending a wedding in Los Angeles.
Cherry, McVey, and Hebden then decamped to Woodstock, New York for a week-long recording session at the Creative Music Studio, a recording space founded by jazz pianist Karl Berger -- who, in a stroke of providence, was a band member of Neneh's stepfather and legendary jazz musician Don Cherry in the 1960s, as well as being friends with her mother Moki. "Being in a studio with them was like being in a familiar space," she says about working in the studio of family friend Karl and his wife Ingrid. "It was easy to reach into myself for the feelings I needed to be in tune with a song -- and at night, Cameron and I would have dinner with Ingrid and Karl and they'd tell stories about my father. There were deep threads."
"It was one of the best writing periods I've had in a really long time," Cherry continues while discussing the creative process behind Broken Politics. "I got out of the waiting room and into the inner sanctum. It was cool to have some material to bring to life, as well as to have inspiration to write the rest of the album." And that inspiration, like so much great art, came from Cherry's exploring of the cross-point between the personal and the political.
"I'm very shy about taking on big themes with the airs that I've got a solution -- who has the fucking solutions?" Cherry admits while talking about the album's title. "I like writing from a personal perspective, and the time we live in is so much about finding your own voice. People have been left feeling misheard, misunderstood, and disillusioned. What the fuck can I do? Maybe politics starts in your bedroom, or your house -- a form of activism, and a responsibility. The album is about all of those things: feeling broken, disappointed, and sad, but having perseverance. It's a fight against the extinction of free thought and spirit."
And the complex audacities of Broken Politics highlight that Cherry's collaborators on the album were practical are compatriots in that fight, too. "The thing I love the most about our creativity is our harness," Cherry enthuses about writing with McVey, who she's worked with since previous to her iconic 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi. "It was an honest journey." "Neneh's a songwriter's songwriter," McVey states. "Our creative partnership is a trip. It's a magical journey we've been on for many years now, yet she never ceases to amaze me with her sweet words & melodies."
And Hebden was as instrumental to Broken Politics' creation, contributing the entirety of production to the album. "She had rough chords and vocals already done for songs and she would send me demos of these recorded at home or even just on her phone sometimes," Hebden explains. "I would then come up with an arrangement and instrumentation for the track and we got together in the studio and recorded vocals over my arrangement."
"It was a joy that he wanted to make another record with me," she says about working with the reputed producer. "He's serious in the most beautiful way -- he only does something when he really wants to do it. His heart goes into what he's doing, and he thinks beyond the songs."
Indeed, the sounds on Broken Politics possess an impressive depth and variety, from the rippling, windswept chimes of opener "Broken Leaves" to the layers of woodwinds assisting "Slow Release"'s tense build. There's a sense of restraint streaked across the album that serves to heighten an overall tension -- along Cherry's passionate, thoughtful lyrics and subject matter.
"Kong," a collaboration with Massive Attack's 3D, was inspired by the "ignorance" elicited by the escalating situation in the Calais refugee encampments. "There were all these children on their own, without parents and in transit. They were gonna bring them into England and give them support, but it never happened. People assume that refugees are coming to other places to use -- that they're not leaving things they love. I try to paint a picture and put myself inside a story, and the song is about putting myself in the place of someone who doesn't want to leave where they are.
Then there's the low-slung vibes of "Shotgun Shack," dealing with the ever-present and always-global issue of gun violence in society. The track's name was the result of inspiration that sprung from a half-remembered conversation Cherry had at the funeral of late jazz great Ornette Coleman.
"I don't even remember who said it, but I was like, 'Shotgun shack! That's a cool term," she says with a laugh -- but the themes dealt with in the song are far from funny. "It's about gun culture -- the notion of war zones and the tragedies that guns bring there," Cherry explains matter-of-factly. "The dealing of arms. Street culture. The gun is a powerful thing -- dangerous, but powerful."
And "Faster Than the Truth," with cavernous reverb and softly intense snare rolls, perhaps encapsulates the boundless spirit and inquisitiveness contained within Broken Politics. "When I started this song, it was like I plopped my body in a desert and started to move North," Cherry states when discussing the song. "It's from a woman's perspective, and a reaction to people treating you like you're needy for the wrong reasons. I'm not asking you to be my mother, or my lover -- just listen to me. I'm here, and I'm not going away."
"I have a name. You have a name. We're not just these faceless mounds you can put in the ground," Cherry proclaims when talking about her worldly vision that seeped into Broken Politics. "We're human beings with lives and stories." Art can often remind us of how it feels to live in the moment, and it can also be instructive in helping understand how to preserve that moment. Broken Politics finds Cherry at her most generous and benevolent towards a world that is often anything but. She puts it best in the chorus of "Fallen Leaves," in her own defiant way: "Just because I'm down/ Don't step all over me."