Meshell Ndegeocello: “Weather”

Weather is a pretty perfect metaphor for Meshell Ndegeocello, a singer and songwriter whose muse has led her—never without a little turbulence—through volatile incarnations of funk, hip-hop, jazz, and folk; it’s also perfect for a sometimes-stormy album that surveys the human heart’s incorrigible bluster, and the tumult of intimacy and romance. But maybe the most surprising thing about it is how serene it is. This feels to me like the sound of Ndegeocello settling, and I don’t mean that in a bad way: She’s made a name for herself on the basis of her elusive, ever-changing relationship to genre, but here she escapes category altogether and simply slips into song itself.

Weather is her most pensive album, her most reflective, and her most melancholy. This, more than anything she’s made, strikes me as a singer/songwriter album, something driven home by the presence of Joe Henry in the producer’s chair. He’s an ace at guiding these small, intimate marvels of singing and song, and Weather seems based—as is his custom—on live performance. But there’s something strange in the air for Henry and his usual cast of collaborators; these songs are spit-polished with layers of dubs and studio effects, I can only assume as Ndegeocello’s behest. Her instincts were probably right: The slight affectations on these songs don’t cause them to close up or seem stifled, but rather they reveal how puzzling and open-ended these songs—all of them great—really are. I don’t know what went on in the studio, of course, but I do know that Weather is strange, soulful, and sublime.

Its best moments, I think, are the ones where the edges are most frayed. “Weather” is a jumble of messy humanity, humor and desire bundled together like a tangle of voices. It’s funky and folksy at the same time. “Crazy and Wild” is less a tangle than a dark undertow, stately piano doing nothing to contain the savage passion, the love that leads to the brink of madness. And “Oysters,” a piano-led ballad, is hushed in desperation and need, peppered with comedy and romance. It has my favorite line on the album: “I’ll shuck all the oysters and you can keep the peals/ I do my shucking and my jiving for free.”

It’s a moody piece of work overall, its tempos slow, but don’t take that to mean that it’s boring, or a downer—there’s simply too much beauty and soul, too much ravishing romance and quirky humor, for any of that to be true. And there are a couple of moments that qualify, I think, as pure pop songs. “Chance” bursts through the clouds like a ray of sun, an analog synthesizer giving way to a warm paean to the holy act of risk-taking. “Dirty World,” meanwhile, is a vintage Ndegeocello tune, riding atop a fat bassline and an almost disco-ready beat. Catchy though it may be, this one isn’t as sunny; the chorus ends with “kick and scream and watch it burn.”

But this, I think, is what makes the album such an odd marvel—it’s compelling because, in its own elliptical way, it suggests something of a worldview, one that is no less truthful because of its contradiction. Ndegeocello has filled these tunes with want and desire, forces she regards as equally alluring and destructive, potentially murderous yet profoundly connected to what it means to be human. There are moments of tenderness and naked emotion throughout the album, then—but I think it’s no coincidence that the record ends with her warning her lover not to take her kindness for weakness (a Soul Children cover), or that a song of abject obsession (“I think about you every day, and linger on your doorstep”) is followed by one about a love that makes things new (“I want to live as a beginner”).

Weather takes strange detours and, despite a certain sense of polish, maintains a certain messiness, primarily, I think, because the singer is so persistent in allowing a sense of mystery to preside—something that spills out of the songs into the production and even into her choice of cover material, in particular a soulful reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel.” It adds up to an album that’s deadly serious about love and sex, but also charmingly ragged and funny; deeply reflective and even somber, but still warm and inviting. One the surface it sounds like Meshell Ndegeocello at her most tranquil, but it quickly reveals itself to be an album of sensual pleasure and alluring depth.

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