Natalie Merchant
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Sacks & Co.

Natalie Merchant Advises to ‘Keep Your Courage’ During Hard Times

Natalie Merchant’s title says it all, Keep Your Courage. The beauty of the songs offers solace more than anguish, and changes can be hopeful.

Keep Your Courage
Natalie Merchant
14 April 2023

There’s a compelling earnestness to Natalie Merchant‘s voice. With her low baritone and careful annunciation, she always sounds knowledgeable and understanding. The former frontwoman of 10,000 Maniacs comes off as sincere and serious even when crooning about love in a lighthearted vein. The protagonists and narrators of her songs are aware that everything can come crashing down. Deception can come from oneself as well as the others in one’s life. La di da.

All ten songs on Merchant’s ninth solo studio album, Keep Your Courage, concern love of some kind or other. (The vinyl LP edition includes four bonus tracks from earlier records, previously unreleased on vinyl.) She wrote all but one song, and it’s her first record of all-new material in almost ten years. The songs are not topical in the traditional sense, with no explicit references to COVID, climate change, and political turmoil. Instead, Merchant addresses Aphrodite, Narcissus, St. Valentine, her guardian angel, and other mythic figures. The twirling dervish of a singer intones in symbol and metaphor to offer her discovered truths.   

That’s all good, to a point. Merchant has always had a penchant for expressing her debts to other writers. The same is true here. She cites everyone from Walt Whitman and William Blake to Joan Didion and Buffy Sainte-Marie. In addition, Merchant’s lyrics show off her literary gifts. She begins “Song of Himself” as if she were the old greybeard, “How time does gambol on / With countless comings of the dawn / With the banishing of night / By transcendent rays of light / Sing a song of gilded golden sun / Of the dawning of a day begun / That will never, never come — won’t come again.” The lyrics are overtly pretty and decorous. Ironically, Merchant turns Whitman’s democratic vistas into something less than vernacular. In this case, she turned the expression it was a beautiful morning into gold-plated language for no seeming larger purpose but for arts’ sake.

There is something to be said for alchemy, but Keep Your Courage would be better if Merchant lightened up a bit. During the sophisticated “Big Girls” that addresses the passage of time, she reminds one that “Big girls don’t cry”. Life gets harder (or “gets even”, as Merchant puts it). She adds horns and strings to illustrate the message of the weight of accumulation on the human experience. It’s heavy stuff. I couldn’t help but hear the voice of Frankie Valli (whose “Big Girls Don’t Cry” came from an earlier era) singing in the background in a more youthful voice to express the opposite. Being young is no picnic either. Merchant’s complaint is just an alibi. She would be more honest if she were funnier, and this would make her morals easier to digest.

However, the message of so many songs here is that love matters and that Merchant has witnessed that the passage of time has proved disappointing. The world has not progressed, individually or collectively. Even personal relationships grow sour rather than blossom. She sings, “You’re a tree with a broken limb, picked up and thrown by the wind!” to express her feelings about a past lover in “Eye of the Storm”. The love Merchant sings about is ephemeral, even though the need for love is eternal.

No wonder Merchant waited almost a decade before releasing a new self-penned album, with all the negative things that have happened during this period (no need to list the obvious). This doesn’t address the singer-songwriter’s aging experience and its consequences, “Everybody’s so confused”, as she puts it in “Tower of Babel”. The world has split apart. That does not mean all is lost. Merchant’s album title says it all, Keep Your Courage. The beauty of the songs here offers solace more than anguish. The fact that everything changes can be hopeful.

RATING 7 / 10