The sparseness of 'Across The Water' is a musical vacuum that threatens to crack its container and consume the world that exists just outside of it. A half sung / spoken-word vocal, which sounds as though it was recorded live with all the imperfections and nuances left intact, is matched with contemplative muted percussion. The whole track meanders like someone lost in thought and it becomes clear that there is something missing from proceedings. There is a lack of purpose, direction; the percussion counts a beat, but it isn't leading anywhere. The singer, with her talk of leaving - whether that's of moving to New York ("the city calls to me"), of daughters taken to the slaughter or mothers departing this mortal realm - conjures an emptiness, a space where people, life and things once existed. There was vibrancy and colour but that's all gone and the vacuum is all that is left. Stare at it as much as you like but all you'll see is a blank in the form of that which no longer exists.

It's a fitting, and also a bold, opening to The Blank Project the first album from Neneh Cherry in 17 years. Despite being a confident independent traveller - Neneh left home before 16 and has rarely stayed in one place for too long - the loss of her mother four years ago was still shocking enough to dislodge her from the solid foundations she had built. Slowly Neneh began to write new songs as a way of dealing with her grief, yet rather than focusing on introverted, personal themes, she found herself exploring wider issues around life and it's myriad quirks. Yet she admits that personal experiences still inform the record. This emptiness, then, is not just the space left by a deceased parent, but the starting point for a process that seeks to uncover purpose and meaning. The Blank Project spiralled out of a void and slowly began to take form, perhaps without its participants even realising.

The pulsating drums of the album's titular track shatter any notion of emptiness or self pity. Almost antagonistic after the fragility of 'Across The Water', 'The Blank Project' deals in notions of duality as Neneh bounds between emotional extremes. "I got a man / I love him so much" she announces, before admitting "sometimes I hate him." Meanwhile the initial electronic drum beats are joined by raucous live drumming, the occasional bass drop and pitch shifted vocals. Whilst 'Across The Water' set the scene thematically, it's the titular track that prepares the listener for Neneh's new musical direction.

Recorded with RocketNumberNine and with production from Four Tet, The Blank Project has a sound that, whilst influenced by her collaborators, is entirely Neneh's own construction. At times dealing in haunting minimalism, or recalling electro-pop and trip-hop styles, the album's sound flits between genres. Despite this the arrangement of the tracks and their individual structuring creates a cohesive record that almost seems to have its own overarching narrative. The album starts with tracks that feel sparse and melancholic, which slowly mutate into more detailed and dance-floor focused songs.

Compare for example 'Naked' with 'Dossier'. The former is another track built around a central beat - this time an '80s drum machine, complete with cowbell sound effect - that uses ambient synthesiser chords to create the sense of a great expanse surrounding Neneh's voice. Those synthesisers really come into their own in the final third of the song, as the percussion is stripped out and they are allowed to just fill the sonic landscape with these beautiful, slow swells. 'Dossier' meanwhile opens with a quick cross stick beat under Neneh's vocal, with bass slowly building as the verse progresses. The chorus is close to dark-wave as sustained chimes combine with buzzing atmospherics that continue through the second verse. 'Dossier' for all its musical polish (including a hard-panned rap vocal in the chorus) features one of the rawest vocals on the album - it sounds almost as though it was kept as is without cleaning up during mixing. That's a testament to how strong Neneh's voice remains after all these years.

Whilst the final few songs take a more euphoric route in the final moments of the album, the album remains thematically bleak throughout. 'Dossier' starts out in a relatively optimistic fashion with a couple meeting for the first time. But as Neneh details their continuing relationship it becomes clear this won't have a fairytale ending, as their lives head towards the mundane and describes the lovers as now meeting "every night beside their beds / and clean their teeth before they climb into their heads." Compared to the binary opposites of 'The Blank Project' which seemed to keep that set of lovers together, the couple of 'Dossier' seem to reach a point where all interest is gone and so they satisfy themselves with fantasies whilst Neneh spends the chorus willing them to part - repeating "let him go."

There's a lot to love about this record. Hopefully Neneh's fans will agree that it's been worth the wait. From the haunting '422', with its echoing chimes, to the dark electro-pop of 'Out of the Black' which features a great guest vocal from Robyn, there are too many stand out moments to take in in just one listen. It's easy to just describe this album as minimalist, but there is a great depth in the lyrics as well as in the way the music has been constructed. By the time the excellent 'Everything' starts to fade out into sustained keys and ambient swells you'll find yourself reaching for the repeat and entering the shapeless void of 'Across The Water' once more.