Get past the former Maniac's slick and tasteful adult contemporary sound and you'll find her most personal and compelling album in nearly two decades.
Natalie Merchant's new, self-titled album catches her in a dark and reflective mood, and if your response to that is "no duh", well, I don't blame you. But even for Natalie Merchant, this is weighty stuff. Gone are the days of blending heavy social issues with alternapop, and that's good news for this reviewer, who could never handle the privileged, holier-than-thou agitprop of 10,000 Maniacs, especially when the music was so self-consciously and ironically "happy". Instead, Merchant spends most of her time looking inward, and Natalie Merchant is probably her most consistently pleasing set since 1995's Tigerlily. Her fans are gonna love it.
You will, too, as long as you're okay with the direction her music has taken, which is almost aggressively adult contemporary. Musically, this is the most tasteful pop album I've heard since Steely Dan's Two Against Nature; Merchant's unique voice is dark and ethereal as ever, but she so rarely cuts loose, choosing to lay back as string sections balance jazz-tinged guitars and background singers "dit dit doo" into your ears. Even as Merchant dips her toes into NPR-approved genres like folk and gospel, she never strays too much from the kind of shadowy pop music you'd probably define as "mature". Not that there's anything wrong with maturity, of course, but if you were hoping for a bit of a return to Merchant's new-wave roots, you won't find it here.
What you will find is a singer that's more willing than ever to connect, to use her milky alto to share her personal demons and guarded triumphs. She gets right up to the mic, whispering in your ear, wanting you to be involved and invested in her tracks. There's always been an aloofness about Merchant, but that's part of her appeal. She's the unapproachable girl in the corner of the coffee shop, the one who knows she's smarter than you and has the library to prove it. But 2010's Leave Your Sleep proved that she is at her best when she to breaks down the barriers and connects, and so she does, in her fashion. There are riddles here, but she wants you to work at them.
She's still a moralist, though, which means you'll have to endure the opener "Ladybird", the least compelling track on the album. It's seven minutes of silt (the fuzzy guitar outro doesn't help) with awkward, vaguely condescending lyrics ("So many little ones / So many mouths / You got a lot to feed / And you know you don't know how"). Fortunately, when she delves into more commentary on "Texas", the results are a lot sharper. She takes on the persona of a golden child who sounds suspiciously like a recent former US President ("Papa said the Lord took a shine to me"), and this time, it works. The minor-key folk track is simple, strong, and apt, allowing her increasingly biting lyrics ("Nobody's booming in these busted times / Like me") to settle into grim humor.
"Go Down, Moses" tiptoes into gospel territory, and it's good stuff -- a natural progression for Merchant. The track is ever tasteful (there's that word again) as she prepares to "move on without you", but as she allows herself to cut loose a bit, the song takes shape, especially when she cedes the lead to gospel singer Corliss Stafford. But "Seven Deadly Sins", a quiet folk offering with a wonderfully eerie melody, is the first to really grab our attention, especially when she allows uncomfortably personal lyrics to slip through the narrative ("I'm far too quick with the poison pen / Can't believe I'm writing again / After all these goddamn years"). The track is heavy, and I don't mean trippy -- it carries weight in a way that few pop songs can handle. As a trumpet and French horn lead us through the outro, we can take a breath and realize Merchant has achieved a certain transcendence, which is what we've been looking for. If you get this far and return to the first half again (I'd skip "Ladybird", but taste is taste), you'll find the tracks seem to shimmer more, to resonate. Neat trick.
She offers a classic Merchant-style ballad in "Giving Up Everything", with its strong, intensely personal lyrics ("I mercy-kill my crazy") and hypnotic repetition. And "Black Sheep" allows her darkly playful side to shine as a nifty bari sax and clarinet gently recall a Tom Waits-style rhumba under lyrics like "Black sheep, up on the fence / You're a naughty little boy and you make me tense." Don't get me wrong -- this isn't rock n' roll, nor is it particularly gritty, but it's an exciting reminder that Merchant is no stranger to dingy punk clubs. "It's a-Coming" is a pleaser too, a throwback to the late-afternoon groove of "Carnival", and while her delivery is awfully laid-back, it's nice to know she can still make us geezers nod our heads to the beat.
And then there's "Lulu", Merchant's tribute to Louise Brooks, which comes with its own creepy intro. I'm not sure what to make of this one. I'm guessing Merchant took her inspiration from Brooks' memoir, which I've, uh, been meaning to read. It falls into cliché, as Hollywood tributes must, with references to candles burning at both ends and lives that will never die, and it flirts with a slightly off-putting pretension and judgment. But as it builds into a shameless, slightly dirty power ballad, it really mesmerizes, and we can understand why Merchant would be moved by Brooks' story. Here's a woman who was punished for refusing to play by the rules of the Hollywood elite and spurning fame for love, finding herself an outcast in her hometown. There are probably stronger tracks on Natalie Merchant, but this is the one I keep returning to, the one that commands my attention with an angry, reflective, and ultimately sad urgency.
"Lulu" doesn't close the set, although I wish it did. "The End" is built upon an intricately arranged string section and a melody that recalls the gentler works of REM, but the results are a bit too maudlin and dreary for my ears. But even here, she allows for some light in the dark tale, with "That'll be the end / Of arms stretched wide / Of begging for bread / Of emptiness inside." It's hard to tell where the metaphors begin and end, but there's no doubt that Natalie Merchant is sharing her soul on these tracks, and it's that light in the dark that makes them compelling. Natalie Merchant is sneaky like that. Few albums have sounded this slick, this eager to cater to the over-40 crowd who like their tunes palatable and safe, but just as few are loaded with this much barely-disguised raw emotion. You can let the pretty music wash over you, but ultimately, these are songs to remember.