Many early rockers from the 1950s, such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, came out of church singing traditions and secularized the lyrics for commercial success. Songs such as Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman” and Cooke’s “Lovable” were rewrites of popular gospel songs with the spiritual longing to be closer to god replaced with the expressed physical desire for a woman. Natalie Bergman takes a modern twist on that formula. She writes and sings about her love for god using the tropes of contemporary indie rock as a foundation. Yet there is also something old-fashioned, like the music of the 1950s, in her music.
The resemblance to contemporary music probably has more to do with the growth and development of gospel music in recent years than an attempt to copy worldly styles. Bergman uses odd time signatures, repetitive choruses that go slightly awry, and strange vocalizations to proclaim her religious inclinations. She’s not afraid of calling out Jesus or the devil by name.
Mercy is Bergman’s first solo album. She and her brother Elliot put out three critically admired albums as the duo Wild Belle during the last decade. This one was recorded at her brother’s home studio and marks the first time Natalie wrote and played all the material. She also multi-tracks her voice and harmonizes with herself.
Bergman has a high-pitched voice that sounds like a pinched version of Betty Boop. That can make it difficult to know if she’s ironic or sincere when mixing metaphors and delivering lines such as “I’ve been lost in the desert / Won’t you lead me into green pastures” and “Death follows me wherever I go / Lord, please be my shepherd” as if she’s telling nursery rhymes. However, she is serious. Despite Bergman’s quirky voice, her piety and devotion are real. This is a gospel record.
The album has its roots in personal tragedy. A drunk driver killed Bergman’s father and stepfather in a head-on collision. Soon afterward, she retreated to a monastery in the Southwestern desert where speech was forbidden and began to work on the record. Despite the misfortune which occasioned the music, the album’s mood could best be described as redemptive. “There’s joy in this world,” she sings on “Home at Last” as she ponders what happens to the soul after the body dies. She expresses her belief in a higher power even as she describes personal catastrophe.
It’s this faith that sustains Bergman. Her song titles declare her devotion: “Talk to the Lord”, “Shine Your Light on Me”, “I Will Praise You”, “He Will Lift You Up”, etc. Even the album’s name has religious connotations. Bergman uses the word “mercy” to describe how her belief liberates her from dark feelings and allows her to hope and even love again. “Hallelujah”, she sings on “I’m Going Home”. Her conviction allows her to find rainbows through her tears. She has been saved. Listeners don’t have to be to enjoy her music. It is extraordinary enough in its own way that one can appreciate it without having to accept its dogma. Bergman’s beliefs stimulate her music, but her debut album inspires whether one is a Christian or not.