“Beautiful … beautiful love,” Me’Shell Ndegeocello lushly croons over the panoramic, space-age soundscape of “Love Song #2,” from her just-released album Comfort Woman.
It’s a far cry from “I just had your boyfriend,” a mock-schoolyard taunt she flings at a cuckold “stuck-up bitch” on “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” from her 1993 Maverick Records debut, Plantation Lullabies (all subsequent albums have also been on Maverick).
Romance and sensuality, in no short supply on Ndegeocello’s previous work, dominate the good vibrations of Comfort Woman. But, as the title suggests, the album also finds the singer/songwriter exploring a much more, well, settled side to love. Rich and creamy, at times achieving an almost post-coital kind of bliss, Comfort Woman is a suitably honey-eyed chapter in a body of work that boldly wears the many faces of romantic torment.
True to form, Comfort Woman possesses an aura distinguishable from the rest of Ndegeocello’s records, every one distinct. Consider, especially, how the new album compares to the identity issues of last year’s “self-excavation,” Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape.
In each case, Ndegeocello’s blend of soul, R&B, funk, and hip-hop is successfully re-cast in a different musical mold.
Though such contrasts suggest a dramatically different frame of mind at work during the conception and creation of each album, certain compelling elements thread the records together — most notably the freedom with which Ndegeocello sifts in spiritual themes.
Cookie’s original cover art, for example, depicted Ndegeocello in a hijab — a traditional Muslim woman’s garb that covers all but the eyes. In a fluke of happenstance, the album was originally scheduled for release on Sept. 11, 2001 — but was pushed back, for obvious reasons.
It’s unfortunate that the cover art was changed; one could certainly argue that Ndegeocello’s brave, multi-faceted perspectives on religion — especially as made manifest in that cover image — might actually have benefited the nation’s scarred psyche at that point. Ndegeocello is, however, a sensitive and — more importantly — a thoughtful artist, however provocative: Her challenging nature most often comes undercut with humanism.
Known to quote scripture during interviews, Ndegeocello also is openly bisexual (her last name, by the way, means “free as a bird” in Swahili). She freely references both Biblical and Koranic verse in her songs (Comfort Woman’s liner notes conclude with the declaration “all my praise is for Allah”), often juxtaposing her obvious spiritual bent with her social incisiveness.
On Peace Beyond Passion (1996), she even tosses a hint of sexuality into the already volatile mix, opening “Mary Magdalene” with: “I often watch the way you whore yourself — you’re so beautiful.” (The album also boasts songs with titles like “Leviticus: Faggot” and “God Shiva.” And two tracks off Comfort Woman were inspired by Surahs — or chapters — of the Koran.)
A multi-instrumentalist, Ndegeocello is perhaps most celebrated as a bass player (she’s guest-spotted for Joe Henry, Alanis Morissette, John Mellencamp, Madonna and Chaka Khan, among others), while her live show is an even-more-mixed collision of her various styles.
But given the latest left turn that is Comfort Woman, it should be interesting to see how Ndegeocello manages to filter older material through her newest songs’ unremitting joyfulness.
Me’Shell Ndegeocello plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) on Wednesday, Oct. 29 with Soulive and Ivan Neville. Showtime is 9 p.m.; tickets cost $18.