You never know what type of world you’re going to be stepping into when you listen to a new Meshell Ndegeocello album. Those who have followed her career right from her 1993 masterpiece Plantation Lullabies (which is one of the most overlooked and underrated albums of the ‘90s), knows that Meshell rarely, if ever, repeats herself. In fact, this lack of repetition is sometimes so jarring that it’s difficult to follow the path she took from one album to the next. See, for instance, the R&B/soul album Peace Beyond Passion and how it was followed by the super acoustic folk/pop album Bitter, and then how that was followed by the spoken-word hip-hop mixtape Cookie. It’s head spinning. Even the spelling of her name has changed consistently for the first 10 years of her career.
On Weather, Meshell’s ninth studio album, she treads shockingly familiar musical terrain. Weather could easily be seen as the love child between 1999’s Bitter and 2009’s Devil’s Halo. It’s thick with melancholy acoustic strumming, hushed vocals, and suggestive rhythm sections. In many ways, Weather is a revisiting of Bitter, her most Lilith Fair-esque rendering. It scintillates with love and longing, but where Meshell was mourning the loss of a lover in 1999, here she’s celebrating it with a calmer force than she’s ever known.
After 18 years of making music, this is the direction that we wish so many of our favorite ‘90s darlings would tread—maturing without betraying themselves; managing to contradict themselves in ways that are understandable and respectful of who they once were. Although there are still remnants of the cool bass slapping goddess that drew us to her on tracks like “Petite Mort”, “Dead End” and “Dirty World” (the latter having one of the best opening bass riffs ever), the majority of the album tends to steer clear of the jarring funk that’s characterized the ballast of Meshell’s sound, preferring instead to rely on soothing whispers and calming teases. As many have suggested, it’s an intimate album that is more concerned with pleasing the one you’re with rather than satisfying your own hormonal urges.
The album opener, “Weather”, sets the pace and tone for the entire record—a sultry and subtly playful love song. “Weather” isn’t clouded with the undertones of having a drug dependence to enjoy one’s sexuality (as was the case in many tunes from the psychedelic reggae album Comfort Woman). Instead, it relies on realism, sobriety and passion. There is a new-ound sophistication in Meshell’s desire that permeates throughout this album that was absent in many previous efforts. On “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”, which begins with a toned down, but characteristic, augmented string section, she sings “You broke my heart / I was just one in a million / Who thinks the hey day was their day / Tragically longing for the past / I think about you every day / While I loiter on your doorstep / To memories, I say, ‘I’ve had enough’, or ‘I tried’.”
The yearning, the drive, and the passion is much less intense and dramatic than it has been in the past for Meshell. What they are now is focused, mature, and level-headed. The desire is there, but it doesn’t crackle with the self-indulgence of a teenager. It’s more committed, honest, and at times selfless. Take for instance the piano ballad “Oyster” where Meshell sings “Somebody wishing on a shooting star / shooting star stream across the sky / You know it’s just a meteor, right? / People throwing pennies in a wishing well / Wishing well’s gonna run dry / But I ain’t going to leave you tonight / Everybody talkin’ ‘bout changin’ the world / The world ain’t ever gonna change / But you can always change in front of me / I’ll shuck all the oysters and you can keep the pearl / I do my shucking and my jiving for free / Free, like walking down the beach at night.” There’s an astute insight that Meshell manages to grasp onto which eludes so many lesser singer/songwriters.
Weather presents a vastly sophisticated and mature songwriter who has managed to put aside her need to stand on that soap box and declare her political and social ideals. Although that particular Meshell was über-cool, what we are now witnessing is the maturation of a gifted musician who, instead of turning her music into money-grabbing schmaltz like so many other mom-rockers, is offering hushed insightful reverence in the form of laid back cool music. Meshell has mentioned that when she was younger, voicing her concerns about the social and political ills of the world was a significant part of her identity, but in age she’s learned that she can still hold true to those ideals without needing to convert the masses or declare her outrage with such urgency. She’s living a quiet little life on her own little island where they play cool music, and everyone is really awesome.
// Notes from the Road
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