When Natalie Merchant was fronting the band “10,000 Maniacs” I was going through a period where I wasn’t listening to very much popular music. Therefore I completely missed out on what it was she had to offer at that period of her musical life. That’s not to say that I’d never heard of her before listening to the album under review, but you could safely say that I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of one of her songs.
That being said it didn’t stop me from being intrigued by this woman whom I’d never listened to. I figured the opportunity to get a good perspective on her career offered by her releasing a retrospective album representing twenty years of solo material was not one to pass up.
The disc in question is simply entitled Natalie Merchant Retrospective 1995 – 2005 The songs on this disc were culled by Natalie from the four solo discs she has released since she left “10,000 Maniacs”: Tigerlily, Ophelia, Motherland, and The House Carpenter’s Daughter. Concurrent with “Retrospective’s” release is a deluxe version featuring a second disc of songs either previously unreleased, or recordings of Natalie singing with performers such as Billy Bragg, REM, and The Chieftains.
Is it possible to gauge the talents of a performer, let alone her career, based on listening to a single disc collection of her songs? Probably not. In most cases it would be patently unfair to the artist because usually record companies looking to cash in on somebody’s popularity piece these compilations together. But in cases like this when the artist herself has chosen the tracks as the ones that are the most important to her career, it is possible to infer quite a lot from her choices.
These are the pieces that she thinks represent her music at its best; therefore a critic is free to assess their merits within the same context. If these are what she thinks are the best, than they represent a good indication of what her music is like and the changes she has undergone as a performer.
“I tend to remember the events in my life and the people who have participated in them through the context of album cycles: writing, recording, and performing…While going through the material to select what was most important to include, I let the music help me revisit when and how each of these songs came about. I was reminded of how it felt to sing them, what I was trying to say…” Natalie Merchant liner notes Natalie Merchant Retrospective 1995-2005
Natalie Merchant is one of the most innovative and soulful female pop singers I have heard in ages. Her voice moves from gentle sweetness to an emotion wrenched husky growl, without any sign of affectation. She seems to have the uncanny ability to express the emotions generated by her lyrics with only the sound of her voice.
No matter if, as early in her career, she is playing blues influenced pop, or in the songs from Motherland and The House Carpenter’s Daughter, folk influenced or traditional American folk music, there is nothing artificial in her presentation. There is nothing contrived about any of her musical choices. There is a genuine commitment to whatever style of music she is performing at that moment. She is more firmly rooted in the present than almost any other performer I have heard.
The songs she has chosen to perform range from the straightforward pop of “Kind and Generous”(which she expresses delighted surprise about its popularity at sporting events) and “Jealousy”(in her liner notes she admits to be a little embarrassed by “the catty pettiness of the lyrics”, but has included it because it was “…my first stab at writing a truly frivolous song”) to her haunting arrangement of the traditional folk song “Owensboro”
“I know that it will hurt/I know that it will break your heart/the way things are/and the way they’ve been/and the way they’ve always been” Natalie Merchant, “Break Your Heart”. Ophelia 1998.
Natalie Merchant may have some overtly political songs, (and I did notice when looking up lyrics on her web site the old union song “Which Side Are You On”) but on this disc the politics is that of the personal. How society’s changes for the worse are damaging all of us one way or another. By not climbing on a strident soapbox politically, and keeping her emotions on her sleeve, she seems to be trying to reach as broad a spectrum of people as possible.
Instead of taking the easy route and speaking to only the converted, she is trying to explain her feelings about the world in a way that more people can understand. She is a mature enough songwriter to understand that you can’t demand change and alienate people at the same time; otherwise change will never be affected.
Like others before her, Phil Ochs and Jackson Brown spring to mind, she is unabashed in her love of her country, but at the same time doesn’t let her love change to blind adoration. On the song “Motherland” she asks her country to live up to her title:
motherland cradle me/close my eyes/lullaby me to sleep/keep me safe/lie with me/stay beside me/don’t go”
Ms. Merchant has the ability to convey deeply felt emotions within deceptively few words. In the song “The Living” about a man who drinks himself to death, she captures the shame and isolation of the addict with a simplicity that is breathtaking. The simple line “I don’t stand a chance among the living” gives more insight into the troubled mind of the self-destructive than any psychology textbook on addictions can hope to offer.
Just in case you’re thinking, damn this woman is a downer, that’s not the case. She writes just as many uplifting songs as pensive. In particular “Wonder” stands out not just for it’s message of hope, but for the effect that it has had out in the world.
“Then he quoted my song “Wonder”, lyrics he had seen taped to the wall over a sick child’s bed. Nurses in the pediatric hospital where he worked told him it was a sort of anthem for the patients there” Natalie Merchant, liner notes Natalie Merchant Retrospective 1995-2005
Ms. Merchant was recounting a speech that a doctor had given when he was being honoured for his work in fighting Huntington’s disease (he had isolated the gene that causes it) He had been talking about there being no explanation for the healing powers of music, laughter and love, but there was no denying them. That was when he brought up her song, as an example of music giving people hope in a hopeless situation.
It’s kind of hard to argue against that kind of tribute to Natalie Merchant’s talents. If you are someone like me who has never listened to her work with any real attention before, or if you are a fan who does not have samples of all her work, this disc will make a wonderful addition to your collection. In this world of cookie cutter, processed, and pre packaged music Natalie Merchant is a rough-hewn, raw edged breath of fresh air. Buy this album to remember what pop music is capable of evoking; buy this disc and enjoy some great music.