She's not Everywoman, and you'll probably never catch her singing "I'm Every Woman." But Me'Shell Ndegeocello has personalities to spare. There's the Ndegeocello who plays on other people's records: Her wry bass-string snaps on John Mellencamp's cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" sounded like a sarcastically raised eyebrow, an indictment of the whole project -- "Dear Jack, wouldn't wanna be ya, love Diane." But there's also Ndegeocello the troubled-funk auteur, a songwriter who feels it's incumbent upon her to signify beyond herself, a severe slam poet who strains all the fun from hip-hop (as she did on 1993 debut "Plantation Lullabies") or burdens her songs with capital-M Messages and gratuitous colons (as on "Peace Beyond Passion" in 1996).
As one of the first artists signed to Madonna's Maverick label, Ndegeocello debuted under a cloud of hype. But since then, she's been the victim of music-industry cluelessness, shortchanged by a business that prefers its black female artistes universal like Lauryn Hill, wacky-cybersexy like Missy Elliott, glam like Mary J. Blige or not at all. To hear her tell it in interviews, or from the stage on this summer's Lilith Fair tour, Ndegeocello's sufficiently fed up with the process that she's ready to go make jazz records, or pack up and move to Paris, as she Nina Si-moaned to critic Robert Hilburn in a recent Los Angeles Times profile. She's accused Maverick execs of refusing to support and promote her latest album, "Bitter." Not hard to believe, since it isn't a potentially TLC-trumping blockbuster by any yardstick. Moreover, it's a wracked, fragile song cycle about lust and loss -- one that's flawed even by critical standards.
Still, "Bitter" taps emotional depths the cranky Ndegeocello of albums past didn't even seem to possess. The subject throughout is love in the past tense, undone by guilt and personal baggage or just plain doomed from the start, and exorcised in piano-driven songs that approximate the hushed intensity of Tori Amos waiting to exhale. Even the album's more buoyant cuts find Ndegeocello spinning old soul records backward, approaching Green/Gaye R&B with a painfully enlarged spirit and a heightened awareness of the music's emotional stakes. On "Loyalty," over a tugging groove with the buttery burr of a classic Willie Mitchell production, young lovers struggle toward intimacy like it's a tenuous truce, and the line "Please don't betray me" passes as pillow talk.
But songs like that one, where Ndegeocello gets an actual rhythmic foundation to lean against, are rare -- on most of "Bitter," we are floating in space, barely tethered by an instrumental palette that's all echo-decked strings and shamisen, airy synth pads and rippling pedal steel. When Joni Mitchell chased a similar set of vapor trails on "Hejira" (1976), she had the formidable bass man Jaco Pastorius on her ground crew. Here, Ndegeocello's checked her own bass in the overhead compartment, and she's rounded out her rhythm section with a drummer whose tap is often so equivocal that Natalie Merchant could grow wildflowers under his snare.
Her cover of Jimi Hendrix's proto-slacker nature haiku, "May This Be Love," features no drums at all. It's pretty, for sure, adorned with delicately droopy strings echoing David Byrne's score from "The Last Emperor." But even Hendrix's spaciest jams weren't designed to drift down a river of exotica on a petal-strewn raft. (He left that shit for Donovan.) Ndegeocello's interpretation comes dangerously close to hippie listlessness -- it's like a magic Spanish castle that a strong wind could knock down. Music this obsessed with the
physical, and with the way sex and loneliness become inextricably entangled, shouldn't sound this disembodied.
Until Ndegeocello finds a happy medium between booty and snooty, we can prize "Bitter" for its highlights. One of the best is "Wasted Time," a duet with Joe Henry, a singer-songwriter who (by now) has spiraled as far from his folk-rock roots as Ndegeocello has from standard funk or R&B. Henry's croak cautiously circles her reserved, Bill Withers-ish pulse. They sing like ex-lovers, asleep on opposite coasts but meeting again in a dream, or (more accurately) like a couple of genre frame-breakers who've been drinking all night at the Unable to Translate Critical Acclaim Into SoundScan Numbers Bar and Lounge. They're singing the same lyrics without hitting the same beats, and every syllable suggests an off-camera crying jag that's just passed. Ndegeocello's undoubtedly got more songs like this in her, and it'd be a shame if she drifted away, or bowed out, before giving us a chance to hear them.