It can be a solitary life as a Folk Radio UK reviewer, but, if two or more of us get together, good times follow as we plunder each other’s music collections. So it was through Neil McFadyen that I came to know Natalie Merchant’s music and her first solo album, Tigerlily, it has been a firm favourite now for several years. When Alex offered her new, self-titled, album for review, I almost bit his hand off.
It’s been a long time coming, her last album of entirely original material was released in 2001. She has released a couple of albums since then, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, a reworking of folk songs, some traditional, some contemporary, and Leave Your Sleep, musical adaptations of 19th and 20th century poems on the theme of childhood. What has been missing, though, have been fresh examples of the exquisitely crafted, often deeply personal, songs that had previously been her trade mark. I’m pleased to report that Natalie Merchant delivers these in abundance. Songs that make you think, songs that make you feel, the feelings may initially be of sadness, outrage, even anger but by the end of each track you also have feelings of pleasure, content that you’ve spent the last 5 minutes wisely. Natalie describes these songs as dealing with “love gained and lost, regret, denial, surrender, greed, destructiveness, defeat, and occasional triumph.” In the last 13 years, Natalie has married, brought up a daughter and divorced, so, whilst she deliberately puts distance between herself and the characters that inhabit her songs, many of the issues those characters wrestle with have a very personal resonance for her.
The album opens with one such track, Ladybird, the emotions of a woman desperate to leave a marriage that’s grown cold, but not sure how to do it. The first 30 seconds create a very different mood, a light backing vocal do-de-do-ing over a few piano chords and I confess to being thrown by it, this could be the intro to any number of middle of the road songs. But, as soon as Natalie’s unmistakable voice cuts in, always powerful, sometimes with a slight husky tone, sometimes sharp edged, the true mood of the song is established, “Hey, Ladybird, ain’t it just the way, the way that love grows cold and then fades away? Now when he touches you, make no mistake, the fire’s long gone out and the ash has blown away.” This is not a top 40 love song.
The lyrics in all of the songs pull no punches, whether dealing with relationship breakdown, surviving Hurricane Katrina, global ecological catastrophe or the tawdry glamour of 1930’s Hollywood. But, counterbalancing this weight, we have not only Natalie’s oh so listenable voice but also some gloriously rich arrangements. Her ‘side projects’ since the 2001 Motherland album have led her into collaborations with an enormous range of musicians and she has drawn on a number for this album. They’ve contributed to arrangements that bring in brass, woodwind and a substantial string ensemble to supplement the ubiquitous guitar, piano, bass and drums.
This album is the product of a mature, thoughtful songwriter who’s come a long way since emerging as the teenage vocalist and lyricist of 80’s alt rock band 10,000 Maniacs. It’s been a journey with plenty of very public highlights and, it would seem, some private low times. Armed with this experience she has delivered for us this combination of lyrics with a purpose, arresting vocals and intriguingly detailed accompaniments, a set of songs that, above all, entertain, and are a joy to listen to. Evidently, during these last 13 years, Natalie has continued to write songs of which these are just a tiny proportion. There is a wealth of material waiting to be recorded. Good news!
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Natalie Merchant is Out Now.
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