Release Date: May 6, 2014
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter, Contemporary Pop/Rock
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.
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”.
Natalie Merchant is marketed as the successor to 2001's Motherland, suggesting it's Merchant's first album since, but that isn't strictly true. She independently released a collection of folk covers called The House Carpenter's Daughter in 2003 and, most notably, the ambitious double-disc neo-children's album Leave Your Sleep in 2010 -- distinctive work both but she hasn't dedicated herself fully to original material in 13 years, so Natalie Merchant is indeed noteworthy. Feeling neither pent-up nor fussy, the eponymous album is handsome, deliberate, and familiar; she's not picking up where she left off, she's merely resuming her career, not acting like any time or fashion has passed in her absence.
It's hard to point to the exact moment when Natalie Merchant, revered heroine of the college rock sound as lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs throughout the 1980s, became Natalie Merchant, your Mum's favourite background music.It must have been sometime around the release of her second solo record, the moody Ophelia (1998). Certainly, the shift took place while I was at university (1995-99), because I remember watching it happen. One day, it seemed, everyone was listening to Merchant's excellent solo debut Tigerlily, and then it was only some dedicated fans, and then it was almost no one.
A first album of original material for 13 years from the former 10,000 Maniacs singer will be welcomed by many. The decade she’s spent songwriting has included marriage, childbirth and divorce, so it’s fair to expect a rollercoaster of emotions – yet we also get the kitchen sink in the shape of strings, brass and woodwinds. Add self-production and you have the recipe for overkill.
More of the same is usually a bad thing in the music world but sometimes it’s perfectly all right. That’s why some of our favorite musicians are like old friends, they’re dependable. When you need advice you know who to call. When you have some gossip you know who to share it with. Artists ….
“Pushin’ on, pushin’ on, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” Natalie Merchant sings on her self-titled new album, a set of dark, brave, thoughtful and serenely startling songs that is her first album in 13 years with her own lyrics. Ms. Merchant, 50, had million-selling albums in the ….