Happy 20th Anniversary to Meshell Ndegeocello’s third studio album Bitter, originally released Month DD, August 24, 1999.
A brief glance at my body of work here at Albumism will tell you that I am a Prince fan. I have had the pleasure of writing about a number of his albums here, waxing lyrical at all and sundry whenever the opportunity arises. In my celestial sphere of music, he is the sun. All things revolve around him. Yet just as our sun powers life here on earth, so his sphere of influence gives others the wherewithal to flourish in my collection too. I’m not just talking about those artists immediately in his thrall (those labeled protégés who recorded versions of his songs), but also those he signposted for me to discover.
Hearing Prince had covered Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby” at an aftershow gave me the desire to hear his original version, while his work with George Clinton on Grafitti Bridge (1990) gave me the urge to learn more about the crazy-haired funkateer who accompanied Prince on “We Can Funk.” On one particular occasion though, it was his words, rather than music that led me to discover an artist who occupies a special place in my heart.
Around 1995, when Prince was in the midst of a contractual dispute with his record label and symbolic name changes, he came to the UK with The Gold Experience Tour. Given his complex situation he embarked on a media tour, being interviewed by newspapers, magazines and even on TV (although the less said about his bonkers interview with The Sunday Show, the better). One journalist asked Prince who he was listening to at that moment and while he may have mentioned other people, one name stuck with me in particular: Meshell Ndegeocello.
With no greater honor than to be name-checked by Prince, it was clear that I was going to seek out this artist and see what the fuss was all about. Her second album Peace Beyond Passion (1996) was the first that made a home in my collection, closely followed by her debut Plantation Lullabies (1993). Those albums bristled with defiance and fought to establish Ndegeocello’s identity as a proud gay black woman. And she did that with funk.
What awaited on her third studio album Bitter couldn’t have been much more different. An elegantly beautiful musical backdrop concealed emotional desolation and more than a drop of the titular quality. Perhaps a key component of this totally different sound was the presence of Craig Street on production duties. Having woven magic with both k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson, he proceeded to coax similar wonders from Meshell Ndegeocello as she explored the darker regions of heartbreak, betrayal and emotional responsibility.
At its best, Bitter is a devastating combination of the most beautiful sounds allied to an iron fist to the guts—the contrast is marked and makes the album more effective for it. The beauty is evident from the offing—the opener “Adam” is a mournful string-led instrumental that adds percussion to swell like the sea at high tide. And then there are the first words sung on the album: “I remember when you filled my heart with joy / Was I blind to the truth just there to fill the space / ‘Cause now you have no interest in anything I have to say / And I have allowed you to make me feel dumb / What kind of fool am I that you so easily set me aside.”
“Fool Of Me” takes that ignominy and envelopes it with plaintive piano, somber brushed percussion and the subtlest of string arrangements to create a destructive concoction of jealousy, self-admonishment and unanswered questions. Lest she paint herself into the corner of victim, “Faithful” then reveals her own romantic shortcomings as a serenely contemplative tune (“No one is faithful / I am weak / I go astray / Forgive me for my ways”) gives way to a swirling call and response between guitar solo, pounding drums and thunderous piano.
She is unafraid to bear her own insecurities and weaknesses and that is abundantly clear as the album proceeds. Of course for every heart broken, there must be a burning love or desire to precede it and that comes into play on the jaunty (by comparison with the first few tracks) “Satisfy,” exemplified in lines like “Alone I am never / I am but one of many / And you have come so that I may see / freedom amidst this mockery / I hold out my hand and touch heaven / Tear out my grieving heart / But you come and fill it with love.”
Whilst it is undoubtedly positive about love, there is still an undeniable streak of darkness that pervades—it teeters on the brink of overwhelming the light. That darkness is wrapped up in a stunningly beautiful musical blanket on title track “Bitter.” A simple dance between guitar and strings, it is haunting and bewitching but with the acid-tinged lyrics it punches like a heavyweight (“You push me away bitterly / My apologies fall on your deaf ears / You curse my name bitterly / And now your eyes they look at me bitterly.”)
After a beguiling cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” the love returns in the form of the one-two composed of “Sincerity” and “Loyalty” before a real highlight of the album. A glance at the inlay card and lyrics might mislead you somewhat. There are barely five lines of lyrics for “Beautiful”, two of which are repeated, but it is carried off with such yearning and depth of feeling; hesitation trembling in her voice as she longs to simply touch the object of her affections. You can practically feel the butterflies in her stomach.
“Eve” comes and goes in the blink of an eye with its oriental strings before two songs of the highest quality close the album. It is less than surprising to hear that one curses a lack of love and intimacy (“Wasted Time”) while the other finds her bathing in the glory of love (“Grace”). The former boasts layer upon layer of musical beauty in the shape of steel slide, acoustic and electric guitars running in between, around and on top of one another, while Ndegeocello bemoans time lost lusting for one who fails to reciprocate.
The album closer is a form of euphoria after so many gaping wounds inflicted by love. Not only does the melody have a tender, sweet feel but her voice is full-to-bursting with a wholehearted warmth that echoes the basking warmth of the love she sings of. As her voice wraps itself around the pre-chorus refrain (“I never thought I’d fall in love”), it is impossible not to be swept up by the beauty of both her voice and the sentiment. In fact that is part of the immense impact of the album—Ndegeocello’s voice. It is a thing of depth and timbre that brings a beauty to both heartbreak and joy, a revelation after her first two albums.
Of course the Prince connection didn’t stop at his signposting her to the world, lurking in the credits are two of the most important names in Prince’s checkered history: Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin of The Revolution. Playing guitar and piano (what else) they offered a further seal of approval to my callow young self, but listening now, their presence is immaterial. This is all about Meshell Ndegeocello in all her torrid, loveless states in between brief sojourns into the bliss that only love and intimacy can bring.
There are not many people with as varied an output as Ndegeocello. Her future albums explore a million different avenues (including her amazing 2018 set of covers Ventriloquism), but this is right at the top as far as I’m concerned. An album that can only be listened to once the sun has dropped and the phone is off the hook, Bitter is beautiful and cruelly barbed at the same time. A heady brew.