This, the third Ndegeocello disc, is a brave departure from 1996s breakthrough Peace Beyond Passion. Where that album offered bold, soul-and-jazz-driven statements of independence and amounted to a musical reclamation of ones own destiny, Bitter is a spare, clear-eyed reflection on the pain of love gone astray, love rejected, and love unrequited.
Where PBP has the righteous indignation of the Bill Withers tune "Who is He and What is He to You," Bitter takes a completely different view on love. Here the confrontation is with self, and the failings are internal and yet inescapable. Almost from the start Ndegeocello claims, "No one is faithful, I go astray" and then asks that we "Forgive me for my ways." Yet what gives the album such power is that instead of wallowing in Paula Cole- or Jewel-like self-pity, Ndegeocello watches the world around her and understands her role in it. So even though she laments in the title track that "You push me away bitterly, my apologies fall on your deaf ears," she accepts that she is the cause of both her lovers pain and her own, that the blood is on her hands, and that she must grow and learn to give a true heart before she can receive one back.
At times we join Ndegeocello as a voyeur, looking in on relationships in various stages of implosion, dysfunction and remorse. In "Sincerity" we watch a time-bomb in the making, where a one-sided love is the explosive, while in "Loyalty" we see two not-quite-lovers building a relationship around the fears and hurts of their parents failed love lives, where they beg each other, "just dont betray me." As chilling as these tunes are, Ndegeocello is at her best when she invites us into her own fears and hurts. In both "Fool of Me" and "Wasted Time," we feel what it is to love and be rejected, while "Faithful" offers a more convoluted take on that story. In that tune, Ndegeocello comments that, "When I touch myself I think only of you," but then adds that she thinks of you "when I touch someone else" as well. It is bitter indeed to love one while soullessly "touching" another.
By the end of the album, she is scarred but the wiser and more humble for it. But like a true believer and through all the pain, Ndegeocello remains humble and finds redemption in the end. "Grace," the concluding song, finds her aware of her own fragility and need, ready to accept the power of someones love over her own life, and ready to give in like measure.
As good as this album is, I fear it will be overlooked simply because its treasures are those of honest reflection and deep understanding. Without a driving bass line or even an obvious single, Bitter is a vision that takes all 47 minutes to explore. The spirit it shares is that of Bruce Springsteens Darkness on the Edge of Town, wherein the cast of Born to Run entered real life and found pain, personal responsibility and loss. Ndegeocello, after declaring herself free in Peace Beyond Passion, is exploring the pain of personal freedom, learning the cost of choice and how to live, not just for self but for and with someone else. A superb, mature, thoughtful, demanding and rewarding album.
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