Meshell Ndegeocello has never been easy to categorise, and it would seem that she prefers it that way. Her eighth studio album, Devil’s Halo, continues her perplexing and genre-hopping evolution in a natural and wholly organic direction, resulting in her most rich and rewarding release since 1999’s Bitter.
A bassist above all else, Ndegeocello has carved out an impressively wide and twisting path for herself throughout her 20-year career. In her early days she auditioned to play bass for Washington, DC metal-soul band Living Colour. She’s since played bass for Madonna, Alanis Morrisette, The Rolling Stones, The Blind Boys Of Alabama and Chaka Khan. If her resum� hasn’t confounded you yet, she also sang a duet with John Mellencamp on his 1994 cover of Van Morrison‘s Wild Night.
All the while, as a solo artist, Ndegeocello has continually defied conventions, exploring themes of politics, race, sex, love and death through her music, and often intermingling themes to mirror the surprising and often bitter nature of life and relationships. She’s obviously well-studied musically – tones of jazz, soul, grunge, punk, hip hop and funk run through her catalogue at odd and unpredictable turns. She’s not content to make the same album twice and, as such, she tends to leave fans and critics scratching their heads.
Devil’s Halo – as its name suggests – is just as complex and challenging dichotomy as Ndegeochello herself. Musically, it is at turns achingly sensual and brutally violent. Jazz subtleties and post-grunge riffing crash and intermingle, resulting in an album without a single predictable note. Ndegeocello’s soulful contralto and thick, groove-heavy bass playing serve as the glue, fusing beautifully with co-producer Chris Bruce’s guitar in a wash of genuine energy and collaboration that can only be achieved in the live, in-studio environment.
Album opener Slaughter sets the tone with reverberating guitars and the intricate dance of marrying soul sultriness with rock ‘n’ roll aggression. “My love will lead you to slaughter,” Ndegeocello sings in a narrative that juxtaposes “tricks and lovers”. Lola is an post-rock rave-up whose style and rhythm wouldn’t feel out of place on a TV On The Radio album. “The boy she loves, she left her for another girl,” she sings. “The girl she loves, she left her for another boy.”
Hair Of The Dog tells the story of a woeful hangover: “One too many. Not enough to forget you.” Mass Transit bounces in gruff, toe-tapping style with Bruce’s guitars blipping in starts and stops over one of the album’s only really singable melodies. White Girl borders on space-funk, and Crying In Your Beer closes everything out with slow, finger-picked acoustic guitar, and the plea, “Don’t let me die alone.”
“Sometimes I float too far from the shore,” Ndegeocello sings as the album sighs to its end. If floating too far is what it takes to create an album as complex and deeply rewarding as Devil’s Halo, then it’s worth the trip. Ndegeocello has made a damn good album – maybe the best of her impressive career – and she’s made a case for herself as a monumental figure in the uncertain landscape of 21st century soul.