Forget what you know about Meshell Ndegéocello, including the fact that she has an apostrophe in her name. The apostrophes are gone from the credits on Bitter (Maverick), her new album, and so is the bass-heavy funk that dominated her first two records, Plantation Lullabies and Peace Beyond Passion. Apostrophes open up space in words, and Bitter is a close-up examination of emotions with no room between the letters.
No record this year is as haunting as Bitter. Little wisps of melody, carrying huge payloads of feeling, come across my brain at all hours of the day and night. "You made a fool of me," she cries. "And now my eyes look at you bitterly/bitterly bitterly." "He loves/with sweetness and sincerity/while she can only pretend." These songs probe deep into relationships, not just ones between lovers but those between any combination of people who don't always give each other exactly what they want.
It's not a painful record, though; it's too honest, and too lovely. Ndegéocello wants us to know her truth, even when it's not exactly what she wants it to be. She's still crafting it, of course, and choosing what she will reveal. That's what turns this record from therapeutic confession into art -- that and the lightly throbbing drumbeats, the occasional slippery steel guitar or delicate keyboard swirls, of course.
A few weeks back, Ndegéocello performed on The Chris Rock Show and found a way to project these intensely personal, quietly beautiful songs into the sort of larger experience required of a live concert.