If you’re yet to feel the tepid embrace of middle age – or, unlike me, you didn’t decide aged 20 that it would be a marvellous idea to get really, really into Eighties college rock - there’s a fair chance that you don’t know who Natalie Merchant is, so long has she been AWOL.
After blazing through Eighties and early Nineties with the earnest folk rock magnificence of 10,000 Maniacs, then following through with the glorious AOR monolith that was 1995’s mega-selling solo debut Tigerlily and the strange, frozen Ophelia, Merchant exercised the wealthy solo artist’s right to bugger off for ages. Her last set of original songs, 2001’s Motherland was a hushed, folky album that saw Merchant largely shrug off the vigor and tunefulness that made her previous band thrilling even at their most preachy. The intervening 13 years have seen her produce nothing but two sets of covers - the traditional American songs of The House Carpenter’s Daughter, from 2003, and 2011’s surprisingly stimulating - but hardly welcoming to newcomers - double album of classic poems set to music, Leave Your Sleep.
By all rights it should be moderately momentous that this multi-platinum selling alt rock lynchpin is releasing her first set of original music in over a decade. But the eponymous Natalie Merchant is a record that defies momentousness. It has the air of a beautifully crafted, expensive object that one stumbles across in a country house or rich person’s flat and you’re not quite sure how old it is, how long it’s been there, or what it’s actually for.
This is not to unduly diss Natalie Merchant, an album that has a fair smattering of magic moments, and is never less than immaculately presented. But its most memorable bits tend to be the ones where Merchant abandons the rich polish and crystal-cut poise that characterises the bulk of these songs. Where even on her first two solo albums she could feel thrillingly unguarded, those days are definitely gone now.
Opener ‘Ladybird’ tells the story of woman leaving the ruins of a broken relationship, and where Merchant would once have howled it over an urgent rhythm, she dispatches it with a mannered, mature croon over fabulously expensive orchestration.
Clearly this review could easily turn into a few hundred words of grumbling that Natalie Merchant isn’t a 10,000 Maniacs album, which would be silly – a lot of time has passed, she is a different artist, and she has new tricks up her sleeve. There is a wintry authority and hard-bitten bluesiness to her middle-aged voice: hearing the dense brassy rumble of ‘Black Sheep’ or worn out narrative of ‘Maggie Said’ in some desolate joint late at night would give you quite the going over, one imagines. And saying it sounds expensive isn’t an insult by any means – the sonorous sepia strings are wonderful, a taut threat of violence throughout ‘Giving Up Everything’ a sudden, dazzling burst of sun that illuminates the wordless final 90 seconds of ‘Ladybird’.
Still, the moments where her composure breaks are the most powerful – when she cuts into a sudden, bluesy slur on Katrina lament ‘Go Down Moses’ it is thrilling and startling and alive; and the unvarnished pain, perhaps even bitterness that radiates from every pore of the ominous stand out ‘Giving Up Everything’ is utterly compelling.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Natalie Merchant is that it sounds like a record that’s been in the works for 13 years, refined and recut and purified until some of the vitality’s gone. Sometimes the sheer sumptuousness of the sounds, of Merchant’s cold, clear voice negotiating lush jungles of brass and cathedral-like groves of cello, is enough in itself. Sometimes, you can’t help but wish for more.
6Andrzej Lukowski's Score