Neneh Cherry has always been a restless musical adventurer. Stockholm-born, she moved to the UK in the late Seventies, where she joined punk band The Slits, became a reggae DJ and duetted with The The. Her own commercial breakthrough came when her 1989 debut album Raw Like Sushi, a thrilling meld of hip hop and pop, became a worldwide hit thanks to tracks Buffalo Stance and Manchild.
Now 54, Cherry’s still on her sonic journey, albeit along a mellower trajectory. After an 18-year hiatus, she has released two new solo albums in quick succession in collaboration with electronic music pioneer Four Tet (real name Keiran Hebden), who specialises in fractured beats and woozy atmospherics. It was the later of these two albums, last year’s Broken Politics, that Cherry was showcasing at Camden’s Roundhouse.
Taking to a stage set with a marimba, a harp, laptops and all manner of percussion, her band – which included husband and co-writer Cameron McVey – were superb. From opening song Fallen Leaves, they overlaid groove-led soundscapes with Hebden’s trademark skittery flourishes. Wearing a blazer and chunky hoop earrings, Cherry was as soulful, sassy and self-possessed as ever.
It being Valentine’s Day, her music stand was swamped by a giant tangle of red roses, their thorns exposed. It was an apt metaphor for the music: spikiness lurked amid the beauty. The minimalist shuffle of Deep Vein Thrombosis, for example, was so gloriously swooning that you almost forgot that its bleak lyrics referenced blood clots and life’s fragility. The trip hop of Massive Attack and Portishead was in evidence everywhere. It always has been in Cherry’s music, really: she was an arranger on Massive Attack’s seminal Nineties album Blue Lines, and the band’s Robert Del Naja co-produced Broken Politics’ first single, Kong.
It didn’t always work. The new songs – and we heard almost all of the new album – prize ambience as much as melody. It meant that tracks like Shot Gun Shack appeared rudderless until the groove kicked in and the song built to a climax so thrilling that Cherry lost one of her earrings. But the undoubted highlight was the addictive, dancehall-tinged Natural Skin Deep, on which Cherry was joined by the eight-piece Mangrove steel band. She wined to the music and we beamed as summer came early to Chalk Farm.
Often at such shows, you expect the old hits to be the highlights and the new songs to be interesting diversions. It was the opposite here. The old favourites failed to hit the mark. Manchild’s subtle key changes were lost in the Roundhouse. And while McVey bravely duetted on 7 Seconds, he’s no Youssou N’Dour.
Cherry ended with Buffalo Stance. The place erupted then gently subsided as a couple of thousand wannabe rappers struggled to remember what that gigolo on the street actually did with his crocodile feet. The song had also been frustratingly reworked, so we lost the bridge and much of the chorus. With all the beauty and nuance contained in the new songs, it was a shame that the old ones didn’t live up to them. It could be that Cherry is simply getting better with age. But, unexpectedly, it prevented a brilliant gig from being an astonishing one.