In music, there are times when the trend follows a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound ratcheted up to the highest decibel with wailing instruments and booming vocals that rattle the pictures on the walls; with glass-shattering, Patti Labellian high notes that can cause early hearing loss. However, there are some artists who find themselves on the other side of the sonic boom. In place of the boom they leave a quiet storm with lyrics and mood generating power that can be more commanding than any thundering masterpiece. Two of the best at kicking up that quiet storm are Sade Adu and Meshell Ndegeocello.
Both ladies have played with a more strident sound though. Ndegeocello caught the ears of the listening public years ago with her funky bass lines and rock tinged collaboration with John Cougar Mellencamp, “Wild Night.” Sade, too, retired her jazzy atmospheric signature to meander into harder musical themes with her 2000 release, Lovers Rock. However, both are at their best when they are stripped down and vulnerable; creating emotionally honest and gripping portraits of love, loss and reconstruction from the ashes with minimal theatrics. Sade’s Love Deluxe and Meshell’s Bitter are perfect examples of the power that can be created from a minimalist vibe. But which reigns supreme?
Love Deluxe was a return to recording after a four-year hiatus. The vibe of the album was sleek, sophisticated and more emotionally upbeat than previous releases. The brass was replaced with a more prominent bass and the band infused a bit of digital tweaking. The perfectly used synth added to the moody grove that always played peek-a-boo with Sade’s smoky delivery. The band worked more with strings outside of guitar and bass. Violins and cellos were placed to extpand the emotional range of the songs from sexy to overwhelmingly sad and Sade’s lyrics fit perfectly on top of the slow, fluid foundation.
Those who only knew of Sade as the messenger of the dark side of love were pleasantly surprised by her balance. The album did include the single “Feel No Pain,” a somewhat exacerbated cry for help for the downtrodden and forgotten faces that capitalism has left behind. There also was “Pearls,” a tear-jerking narrative about the day-to-day existence of the poor in Somalia . The rest of the album, however, was about love. It wasn’t the amorous perfection of a last millennium Whitney Houston cut. It was the calm candor of desire, the deepest recesses of a love struck heart turned inside out and poured over vinyl. “Kiss of Life” suggests her passion for that special man is so strong, it’s divine as she thanks her personal angel for building a bridge to his heart. Love unrequited is the central theme of “Cherish the Day.” Her beloved is so magnificent, when he is in her presence even the air belongs to him. And “No Ordinary Love” is about not being able to let go when he does first.
The simple blend of the open atmospheric instrumentation and Sade’s cool, throaty delivery was worthy of thoughtful listen instead of throwing it on as background music for your day. But some believe Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter was even more engaging.
The album is undoubtedly dark and the ache resonates from song to song, construct to construct. It is the diary of a broken heart and an interrupted soul. Even the songs that speak of love as an accomplishment instead of a lost possession are tinged with melancholy. It’s obvious that even in a new day, the past haunts Ndegeocello. Bitter could be seen as cathartic if there was resolution. But the album, even in its understanding and introspection (she never once shies away from culpability of her poignant situation), leaves her and the listener in limbo. It’s a quiet agony that begs you to follow and commiserate. As sad as it is, it’s absolutely real, beautiful and brilliant.
Sometimes the songs are presented in third person with Meshell acting as narrator. The balance are in first person, but the tight adherence to theme and similar ideas that ribbon between all of the songs lead you to believe all the emotion comes from the same source, the same doomed relationship. The album is full of “whys?” (Fool of Me) However, Ndegeocello takes it a step further, answering the million dollar question (Faithful) and even pressing towards the future with humility and perfect hindsight (Grace.)
Craig Street was the producer who created the perfect emotional underpinnings for Ndegeocello’s dive into musical tragedy and the tracks were arranged perfectly. The music is subdued, darting out from under its smooth range one in a while just to sway the emotion. The strings connect perfectly to the keyboards which swirl around the drum patterns and they all connect back to the story. There are electric guitars, acoustic additions and piano tinkering that provide a pensive backdrop for Meshell to go in self-help style.
But once you put out the candles, cork what’s left of the champagne and conclude the meditative jam session that both of these albums would induce, you have to chose one that really touched your core. Is it Sade’s cool brand of jazzy pop and impossible love? Or is it Meshell Ndegeocello’s melancholy bass sprinkled with evocative soul searching? You be the judge.
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