One of Madonna’s original signings to her Maverick label in the early ’90s, Meshell Ndegeocello enjoyed early success with a pair of high-profile, Grammy-nominated releases, as well as a guest rap on Madonna’s Bedtime Stories. An ever-evolving artist who cites a diverse range of influences and inspirations, she has since settled into a singular career that has journeyed from neo soul ballads to experimental hip hop, and latterly to the fusion art-rock of last year’s terrific Devil’s Halo, which we described as “a kind of concept album on lost love”.
On her ninth album Weather, there’s no such overarching theme. What Ndegeocello and producer Joe Henry have done, rather, is to compile a collection of songs – mainly warm, intimate ballads – that showcase both her deep, expressive, endlessly soulful voice and her emotional directness and honesty. These are songs whose wisdoms sound hard-won, but despite the bald heartbreak of ‘Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear’, Ndegeocello casts herself more often as survivor than victim. The uplifting ‘Chances’ endorses bravery and risk-taking, while ‘A Bitter Mule’ addresses head-on the incompatibility and distance between two lovers, the inference being that despite the desire between them this is a woman that can’t – or maybe just won’t – change just to placate or accommodate a lover.
As ever, the musicianship here is impeccable, with the contributions on piano from both Benji Hughes and Keefus Ciancia particularly well deserving of notice for the moments of beauty that run throughout Weather. But the star of the show is, as always, Ndegeocello’s voice, which graces these lovely compositions with all the elegance and variety we have come to expect. Newcomers will find that hers is a vocal that can be smoky and sultry (‘Weather’), infused with a slinky funkiness (‘Rapid Fire’), a sorrowful wistfulness (‘Chelsea Hotel’) or barely-suppressed sexuality (‘Crazy & Wild’). Always, though, she manages to give the impression of addressing the listener directly, specifically and intimately, as if in a personal, one-on-one conversation.
This is particularly evident in the confessional ‘Objects In The Mirror…’, but applies more or less throughout. A starkly beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel’ (which she dedicates to Janis Joplin) gives a fresh subversive take to the tale of “head on an unmade bed”, while the album’s other cover – of The Soul Children’s 1972 single ‘Don’t Take My Kindness For Weakness’ – is an apposite choice with which to end the album, the song’s message synchronising with Ndegeocello’s outlook with its combination of gentle wisdom and self-belief.
Ndegeocello is at her sublime best on the tender-sad and elegiac ‘Feeling For The Wall’ (with lyrics by Henry); the Hughes/Ciancia-penned ‘Crazy & Wild’, simmering with unfulfilled lust so that the track itself practically stalks; and most of all on the clear-eyed yet endlessly moving ‘Oysters’, another song from Hughes championing the rejection of larger concerns in favour of a focus on the personal. Like a grown-up lullaby, this is the track on which the vocals, the melody, the words and the piano find their ideal synchronicity. It is the high point, certainly, but a high point on an album that is full of subtle, off-centre, downbeat standouts that will resonate and endure.
[Naïve; November 7, 2011]