Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound)
Music this attractive, this deeply tied to feeling and mind as inseparable, shouldn’t be a problem. Should not indeed be hard to grasp.
And in truth it won’t be for many. As well as connecting to an emotional truth in any number of affluent-but-paranoid societies – “unravelled at the seams/I have come undone, in the fabric of our dreams” - this is going to remind a whole bunch of people who wandered away from Neneh Cherry during her long breaks from recording, or found her more recent art/jazz recordings too esoteric or confronting, why she was always worth the time.
But it’s also true that in one sense here’s another one for those musical Luddites still complaining that no one does protest songs anymore.
While undoubtedly a protest album, an album which challenges the status quo, Broken Politics will confound their need for big signs and easy text that spell things out for them. It will confuse them by protesting while seeming to do something else.
Just as the politics of which Cherry sings on this album extend beyond the simplicity of party political and dramas-de-jour such as Brexit or the orange buffoon, the music which she deploys is hardly straight up and down agit-pop. This has far more in common with Portishead’s Dummy and Glory Times, than, say, Rage Against The Machine or A.B. Original.
Likewise, just as the commentary within these songs are subtle, sometimes opaque, and more likely to provoke discussion than immediate agreement, the music insinuates and infiltrates, occasionally dislodging you into discomfort but mostly provoking thought and, eventually, satisfaction.
Made with Keiran Hebden, of Four Tet, and her longtime partner Cameron McVey, Cherry’s album draws down beats to low impact mostly, keeps tempos at shuffle to-walk (or in Kong, a long-legged lope that might have you picturing her 1992 album Homebrew mixed by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow), reinforcing the intimacy that is created by putting her voice firmly, but not overwhelmingly, at the centre of attention.
With that as the overall mode, the album makes its oddities come at you sideways: in the pick and twirl of keyboard or woodwind; in an unexpected switch of rhythm behind the voice; in the brief interludes that touch on something (Poem Daddy), or nothing (Cheap Breakfast Special); or just the woody tuned percussion of Synchronised Devotion.
But when it does push harder, the contrast is striking and at times quite powerful.
In Natural Skin Deep, the ancient synth sounds pour over the steel drums like a Caribbean space movie, the rolling rhythm seems inexorable, and there’s a sense of nagging disquiet. Even when the saxophone solo cuts in like an arrival of serenity, a klaxon injunction returns us to the mild agitation.
Within the rolling House style of Soldier – the looped drums playing follow the leader with the piano - there’s a prickling on the skin that is half pleasure and half uncertainty. Nothing is quite settled, the line between smiling mouth and creased brows reflecting the negotiations of the lyrics.
Those negotiations, while personal in that song, are the closest to a singular message to be taken from Broken Politics. This is an album about knowing this can’t be the only way to live.
“Bite my head off, still my world will always be a little risk worth taking.”