Meshell Ndegeocello has built her stature as one of our most important singer-songwriters almost by stealth. She is prolific, with 11 albums starting with her 1993 debut, “Plantation Lullabies.” But her disposition is to stay in the shadows, guarding her space from commercial demands and the invasions of celebrity culture.
Once a protégée of Madonna on the Maverick label, Ndegeocello edged away toward jazz, at one time stopping singing altogether to focus on her other outlet, the electric bass. A writer of wit and searing sincerity, she’s also invested herself in the work of others, with full-length explorations of Prince and, most recently, Nina Simone.
But “Comet, Come to Me,” her new album, which came out this week, reveals Ndegeocello in full voice and in a free space, drawing from a broad church of influences that add up to an exhilarating collage, and a personal journey through the culture. The record release tour brings Ndegeocello to the Sinclair on Saturday.
The album opens with a blast from the past: a jazzed-up but instantly familiar cover of “Friends,” the 1984 electro-rap hit by Whodini, which harks back to Ndegeocello’s roots in hip-hop and the Washington go-go scene. Elsewhere on the record the salient flavor is folk-rock, or reggae, or limpid pop built around bell-like keyboard motifs.
The lyrics plumb themes of friendships and relationships scrutinized; separations, with regret or for the good of all parties; the search for emotional clarity; the acceptance of indeterminacy. (“Beware of certainty and doubt,” she sings on “Forget My Name.”) As always with Ndegeocello, a searing sincerity prevails. Yet the stories she’s telling are not her own, she cautions, but rather those of people she knows.
“Someone told me this recording seems really personal,” she says by phone. “And that’s the farthest thing from the truth. I observe people around me; that’s my method.”
The song “Tom,” for instance, which evokes a dissolving love and family, comes from a neighbor in the Hudson Valley town where she lives, she says. The lyrics are partly his, lines from notes the two of them exchanged.
Another separation song, “Conviction,” is about a friendship that has ended over one friend’s stubborn bad choices. “Folie a Deux” is a hard breakup song: “Don’t be sentimental, call me hateful and cold/ I just don’t love you no more.” It has a bluntness that we don’t often hear in pop anymore, but depicts dynamics we constantly witness.
“Sometimes it happens that things don't work out,” Ndegeocello says. “You have two people involved in craziness, and that’s love. As I get older, I’m just like, this is a really interesting way to try to exist.”
Ndegeocello unmoored herself from genre restrictions long ago, and works with others like her, such as longtime guitarist Chris Bruce and the producer Craig Street. On “Comet, Come to Me,” a small roster of guests sit in with the four-member band. They include soul experimenter Amp Fiddler on “Friends,” and Jonathan Wilson, the Laurel Canyon revivalist, who adds to the project’s West Coast feel on two songs.
“It was an interesting challenge making it work as a whole,” says guitarist Bruce, citing for example the smooth passage from the country feel of “Good Day Bad” to the dub pulse of “Forget My Name.” “It was a sort of departure, in a way. The previous album was all Nina Simone covers. Here, there was a lot of freedom in the process.”
But there is a connection to the Simone and prior projects too. “Comet, Come to Me” extends, in subtle and personal ways, Ndegeocello’s exploration of what being American means. Like Simone, she is fiercely aware of the country’s social barriers and history of oppression, yet far too autonomous to toe any ideology.
“I’m not an immigrant, but I am the offspring of an obsolete machine,” she says, referring to the subjugation of African-Americans. “They needed to pass a law to make it OK for me to live here. As an American, you need to look at all this. I struggle with what it means to be an American.”
As her career advances — and never more clearly than on “Comet, Come to Me” — one hears Ndegeocello rising up to that existential challenge by addressing the whole of American roots music, a progression not unlike that of her friend and icon Cassandra Wilson. “It hit me fully,” she says. “It comes from Irish peasants and Africans — it’s all one music.”
Perhaps in that spirit, a salient presence on “Comet, Come to Me” is the midcentury poet Kenneth Fearing, whose work is associated with the Depression and World War II era, when much of the cultural corpus we think of as Americana took shape. Two songs on the album are Ndegeocello’s arrangements of excerpts from Fearing’s poems.
One, the melancholy “Continuous Performance,” lands midway through the record. The other is “American Rhapsody,” and it’s telling that Ndegeocello uses this evocation of the national spirit, in Fearing’s words, as the final song. It turns the album’s closing note into a modernist epiphany: “A bona fide life will arrive at last/ stepping from a monoplane with chromium doors and silver wings/ a straight white burning light.”
The hopeful image may be illusory in the face of our difficulties, Ndegeocello suggests. And yet, she says, it’s powerful. “We’re heading into the future.”Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter