To call Macy Gray’s new album, The Trouble With Being Myself, delightful is to minimize its sensual intelligence and considerable emotional depth. But let’s hear it for delight anyway: Gray’s third collection is crammed with easygoing rhythm-section grooves, topped with chicken-scratch guitar riffs, plonking piano chords, and nimble horn charts that span ’60s soul and the jauntier aspects of present-day hip-hop.
Gray’s previous effort, 2001’s ”The Id,” was — well, an effort: the overwrought, overproduced work of an artist coping with debut-album megasuccess. ”Trouble,” by contrast, could be titled ”The Superego,” full of precise prescriptions for a happier life. This itself is bracing, since Gray often fancies herself a likable nutcase, scattered and distracted. There’s a tradition for that sort of image in R&B, of course — Al Green can seem addled in his pursuance of the divine, and George Clinton’s P-funk is, among many other things, an elaborate excuse to behave professionally wacky. And Gray’s devotees understand this as a strategy to deal with fame and (perhaps) her genuine shyness. Given the relatively weak sales of ”The Id,” though, others may have written her off — too soon, it turns out from the evidence here.
The title of ”The Trouble With Being Myself” tips off the listener that Gray hasn’t lost any of her self-absorption. ”Jesus for a Day” should be enough to rest my case, but another tune, ”She Don’t Write Songs About You,” is primarily about why a guy who’s not reciprocating should love her simply for the reason her die-hard fans do: ”because I’m Macy Gray.”
To be sure, no Gray release would be complete without at least one song that rattles her audience a little, as some of us were upon hearing ”The Id”’s ”Gimme All Your Lovin’ or I Will Kill You.” Here, that tune is ”My Fondest Childhood Memories,” on the surface a peppy, Latin-inflected melody written in the first person, but whose lyrics describe the way a young Macy killed tempters who slept with her mother or her father (a plumber in the case of Mom; a babysitter for Dad). Gray announces cheerfully that she was let off — ”despite the murders that I did” — because of her youth. Although it’s a tad troubling to think that murder is the premeditated solution that pops into Gray’s mind during moments of high-stress emotion, it’s also a measure of the universal honesty of her imagination: Everybody has thought of killing someone who has wronged them or a loved one — and further dreamed of getting away with it.
The depth I referred to earlier can be found in this album’s nuanced, varied theme of how deeply love cuts, and heals. You can hear it in the aching plaintiveness of ”She Ain’t Right for You” and ”Speechless”; in the swooning ecstasy of ”Come Together”; and in Gray’s insistence that contentment is best enjoyed with an equal partner on both ”Happiness” and ”Screamin’.” These add up to a remarkable cluster of songs, entrancing in their mastery of styles, from Sly Stone party music to Stevie Wonder balladry to the quotation from Smokey Robinson buried in ”She Ain’t Right for You.” From ”Trouble”’s shrewdly knowing title to the barbed hooks that snag you into nearly every song, Gray is in complete, serene control.