That’s always the first word that comes to mind when anyone mentions Meshell Ndegeocello. Her music eschews sentiment for emotion. There’s a stark acceptance that life is rough, passionate, trying, and beautiful in Ndegeocello’s work. She never shies away from how heavy and messy human emotion can be.
So it’s somewhat refreshing that on her 8th album, Devil’s Halo, she opens up a bit and embraces humor and lighter moments. It would seem that on this album, Ndegeocello is less concerned with how emotion strikes a person (be it love, pain, or sex), but how people relate to that emotion. And in the process she creates the tightest, most emotionally potent work she’s produced since Bitter.
Ndegeocello’s emotionally mature perspective here is striking in its simplicity. As the album title suggests, she takes the good with the bad.
On the opening track, “Slaughter”, she says “My love will lead you to slaughter / If you see it coming I’d run the other way / I’m the spawn of a sick mother”. The song, with its alternating melodic plea and raucous funk, is a beautiful acknowledgement that you often run from love because it can be all-consuming and destructive. In that way, it is a love song, but a more realistic one. A few tracks later, on “Lola”, she brilliantly deconstructs the comfort and stability that relationships and marriage are supposed to provide, and questions why anyone would even want such things (“everyone thinks they’re so fuckin special”).
And on the album closer, a beautiful exploration of loss called “Crying in Your Beer”, she honestly looks at how loved ones can be taken for granted when they are alive – “Sometimes I forget who we are / I forget we’re in love / Don’t let me die alone”.
It would be a mistake to listen to these songs and think that they are sad indictments of love and life’s pitfalls. They are not (her brilliant cover of Ready for the World’s 80’s classic “Love You Down” is weirdly romantic, in fact). What Ndegeocello explores is the somewhat commonplace nature of human interaction, down to the isolating nature of “Mass Transit”.
There isn’t really a bad track on Devil’s Halo. At 37 minutes, it doesn’t run long enough to have any filler. That will make it a relatively easy listen for the uninitiated.
For Ndegeocello fans though, it is tempting to say that the Devil’s Halo and Bitter are just two sides of the same coin — which isn’t really accurate, I don’t think. Anyone who insinuates that this is the happier version of Bitter is missing the point. Devil’s Halo, even with songs like “Bright Shiny Morning” isn’t really a happy album. But it isn’t really a sad one either. It rejects this paradigm as a false choice and as such it is really Bitter with a greater sense of perspective of life’s realities.