[5 June 2014]
If you don’t know who Meshell Ndegeocello is by now, you’re missing out. Following this spectacularly talented woman’s career now for just more than 20 years has been nothing short of fascinating as she’s managed to weave various musical cultural influences in and out of her albums, overlaying them with lyrics that run the gamut of post-feminist discourse, socioeconomic race relations, and good ‘ole fashioned love and sex. Her voice is sensual and soothing, and though she doesn’t sing so much as speak in most of her songs, you still become enveloped in the baritone nature of her libidinous vocals. She’s an experience to behold, and although her latest effort Comet, Come to Me isn’t the best example of her abilities, it still contains some of her best work.
Comet begins with a newly arranged opening guitar riff for Ndegeocello’s cover version of Whodini’s track “Friends” (transcribed from the synth line that plays throughout the original). Her update is a welcome change, doing away with the now dated ‘80s style rap that is wrapped all over the original version. But if you think you’re in for an album reminiscent of Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape or even her fantastic debut Plantation Lullabies where Meshell rapped throughout, you’ll be disappointed. “Friends” is the only track on Comet where Meshell raps, making its placement on the album a bit misleading. It’s also the only track that is characteristically and sonically different than anything Meshell has done within the last 10 years.
“Friends” is followed by “Tom”, the first original song on the record, and while it’s a strong track, it’s nothing that we haven’t heard before, either musically or lyrically. Meshell has always had an uncanny and heartbreaking knack for conveying through her poignant lyrics the drifting of love or dissolution of relationships in such a way as to suggest she’s thought intensely about this ending. “Tom” is another example of that. “Good Day Bad” a fairly nice rendering of past pain rearing its ugly head in present day, follows, before the first track in the second thematic style that makes up Comet. “Forget My Name” is the more reggae inspired piece that is mimicked in the far superior title track and the similarly paced “Modern Time”. The album is thusly comprised of two musical themes, the first being the R&B/rock/soul style that has become a mainstay for Meshell since 2009’s Devil’s Halo, and the other is the stripped down minimalist reggae style that was done to better effect on the glorious 2003 record Comfort Woman.
Ndegeocello has mentioned recently that she’s always been drawn to a style of patterned and layered music – reminiscent of old style dancehall reggae where synths and guitars and baselines and backing vocals would be layered on top of each other in a repetitious manner to drive its point home. And while she’s indicated that this type of styling is quite complex, that sonic adoption in Comet doesn’t come across as something that is intricately layered or really that involved –at least not in the way that she probably intended. This could probably be due to the overly minimalist feel of the record where the listener is left to wonder what could have been if more patterns were layered on top of these existing patterns. While Comet, Come to Me has some brilliant pieces to it that would do nicely alongside some of her best work (tracks like “Comet, Come to Me”, “Conviction”, or “Tom”), it may be the first time in her fascinating career where an album of original material fails to resonate in any sonic reinvention. I’m not entirely sure why this may be, it hasn’t been for lack of want to connect to this record, however, with 12 similarly produced tracks (excluding the album opener “Friends”) there is little to distinguish this record from her most recent post-Maverick records: Devil’s Halo or the magnificent Weather.
This pseudo let down may have something to do with the impossibly fantastic lead single “Conviction”, a song so heart wrenchingly moving, simply delivered and poignantly conveyed that the rest of the album has an impossibly high barometer of excellence to reach. “Conviction” is a double-metaphored track of tough love and sitting back while you watch someone you care for begin to self-destruct. In it, she sings: “I think I’m always right / You love to tell me that / You chose delusion so you can take him back / Turns out you were right and I was wrong / For me your life is just a sad song,” a chorus that stings in its brutality of realism. She continues, “In this new version of the same old story / The villain goes free and reaps all the glory / While you / Look like a fool / I thought you knew better / What a fool you are / Go on, get back together.” All the while sung over an R&B arrangement with synth overtones that harkens back to the best of her 1999 album Bitter. It’s the highlight of the record, and not much else reaches this level.
The plaguing issue with Comet is that, for an artist whose never really liked to repeat herself from one album to the next, you can’t help but think listening through the record that you’ve heard these songs before, or that they would fit comfortably on any of her last few records. Comet, Come to Me unfortunately doesn’t really deliver on the spacey intergalactic promise that its title suggests, nor does it have the same pack and punch that we’ve become accustomed to with Meshell albums. This is a woman who throughout the course of five records went from soulful heartache (Bitter), to scathing hip hop social politicism (Cookie), to spacey reggae/rock love songs (Comfort Woman), to jazz fusion where she didn’t even sing on her own songs (Dance of the Infidel), to bombastic punk/soul/rock (The World Made Me the Man of My Dreams). It was swimmingly chaotic, but mesmerizing to be a part of and watch her go through this growth and transition. Unfortunately, this same level of sonic departures hasn’t happened on her last few albums, and while “Conviction” left this author hopeful that a new album of original material would bring upon a newly reinvigorated Meshell who would relish in various styles and sounds the way she always did, what we do get with Comet is a sparser version of songs that we’ve essentially heard on previous albums. However, as disappointing as this may be to some, Meshell’s devotion to her craft is the glimmer of hope that she’s not headed down a stagnant musical path, and even on her worst day, she’s still mesmerizing to watch.