The Most Artful of Pop: Natalie Merchant

ACCORD, NY - January 23, 2016 - Natalie Merchant 
credit: Jacob BlickenstaffNo one would ever confuse the music that Natalie Merchant writes and produces with prog.  Not in the least!  Well. . . ok, maybe a bit in the least.  That is, while Merchant is firmly in the folk and pop tradition of American songwriting, she’s also willing to take grand chances.  It would certainly not be out of the realm of reality to call what she does artful pop.  And, artful it most certainly is.

Most recently, Merchant released a rather glorious 10-cd collection of all (almost) of her solo material.  This package from Nonesuch, The Natalie Merchant Collection, is a thing of joy.  The sound of the music is so crisp and the packaging is just perfect.  I will admit, I’m a sucker for good presentation and packaging.  The box is sturdy and the 100-page booklet that comes with the set is just stunning.  This, my friends, is the way to release music.

I must also state—somewhat of an embarrassing admission that might be perceived as sexist by some—that I find Merchant one truly beautiful woman.  When she was younger, she was what one would’ve called in the 1980s, “cute.”  As she has aged, however, she has allowed her hair to grey, and she doesn’t hide the few wrinkles of age.  Thus, I find her absolutely stunning as a middle-aged woman.  Thank you, Merchant for NOT succumbing to the disgusting and plastic culture of “forever young.”

In addition to the solo albums Merchant has released, she also includes in this package a new studio album, Butterfly, and a final disk of “rarities.”  At amazon, you can purchase this package—116 tracks!—for a mere $40.  Quite a bargain, especially given the beauty of the package itself.

The new album, Butterfly, is quite good, but I need a bit more time to absorb it.  I hope to do an in-depth review of it soon.

Of everything Merchant has done, however, I find her 2010 double album—Leave Your Sleep—not only her best, but one of the best albums of the rock era.  Certainly, it should rank in the top 100 of all time.  On it, Merchant playfully yet intelligently reconsiders children’s stories and poetries.  The songs range from the most intense pop to the most whimsical.  It’s pretty much perfect.

Giving Up Everything: The Grace of Natalie Merchant

A review of Natalie Merchant, NATALIE MERCHANT (Nonesuch, 2014).  Songs: Ladybird; Maggie Said; Texas; Go Down, Moses; Seven Deadly Sins; Giving Up Everything; Black Sheep; It’s a Coming; Lulu (intro and full song); and The End.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Natalie Merchant, self titled (Nonesuch, 2014).  Highly recommended.
Natalie Merchant, self titled (Nonesuch, 2014). Highly recommended.

Natalie Merchant’s 2010 album, LEAVE YOUR SLEEP, was a masterpiece, pure and simple.  Taking her favorite poems and putting them to music was a stroke of genius.  Merchant’s firm but ethereal voice gave a cinemagraphic feel to some of the finest writings of the last several centuries.  While the poems already had a life of their own, the New York artist proved just how alive they really are by offering each a soundtrack.

Ranging over two disks and including a gorgeous detailed book about the poems and why she chose them, LEAVE YOUR SLEEP is a must-own for any music and poetry lover.

Prior to this, Merchant had released THE HOUSE CARPENTER’S DAUGHTER (2003), a reworking and rearranging of traditional American (and some British) folk and labor songs.  Also stunning, but in a very different way than LEAVE YOUR SLEEP, THE HOUSE CARPENTER’S DAUGHTER came out on Merchant’s own label, Myth America.

Little news from Merchant emerged between 2010 and now.  The last significant interviews she gave—most importantly to the New York Times in 2010—the American revealed that she and her daughter were living in a nunnery in Spain.  Having returned to her childhood faith of Roman Catholicism, Merchant was exploring the possibilities of writing liturgical music and, as hopeful speculation had it, a Mass.

In May of this year, Merchant released a new solo album, self-titled, that is not liturgical in setting, but it is intensely religious, confessional, and pro-fessional, at least in its lyrics.

As an artist who made her fame in the 1980s as one of the lead singer and songwriter of one of America’s favorite alternative rock bands, 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant is often remembered for her poppier music.

Her solo career, however, has revealed several different aspects of this musician.  Her albums have ranged from vaudeville to operatic to folk.  Not surprisingly, she covered a Richard Thompson song on THE HOUSE CARPENTER’S DAUGHTER.  While many in the music industry label her as a “female pop” singer, usually associating her with other North Americans such as Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, and Sarah McLachlan, she really has far more in common with Van Morrison, Fairport Convention, and Traffic.

Like the three bands/acts just mentioned, Merchant at her best always produces soulful, deep, melancholic songs touched not with irony but with intrigue and regret.

Leave Your Sleep (2 disk, NONESUCH, 2010).  Highest recommendation.  A must own.
Leave Your Sleep, (2 disk, Nonesuch, 2010). Highest recommendation. A must own.

The latest album, NATALIE MERCHANT, has every key aspect of her non-pop song writing in spades, but it is still a step removed—on terms of creativity—from her other work.  It’s not nearly as profound, unfortunately, as LEAVE YOUR SLEEP, but then, how could she really compete with the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  As a lyricist, though, Merchant is quite good.

Yet, NATALIE MERCHANT is a truly satisfying affair.  From the opening song to the last note, this album pleases the soul as much as it pleases the aural senses.  Though the lyrics aren’t political, they are full of social justice and charity.  They are also moving as well as haunting.

Tellingly, the photo inside the cd package shows a gracefully graying Natalie (she’s 50), holding a dove.  She holds the bird of peace closely and sincerely.  It’s quite the contrast to The The’s  bayonetted dove of MIND BOMB.  Merchant’s holding of the dove is not sarcastic but hopeful and longing.

Songs such as “Go Down, Moses,” offer a pleading for grace, while the song “Seven Deadly Sins”  scathingly attacks the culture of war.

The most difficult song, lyrically, is “Giving Up Everything.”  Many will no doubt attempt to interpret this as some form of nihilism.  Given Merchant’s faith journey, however, the reality of the meaning is probably quite the opposite. What Merchant is giving up is not life and meaning but the belief that she herself can discover her purpose alone.  “Giving up everything, the big to-do, the hullabaloo, the tug-of-war for some twisted truth.  For the everlasting ache of it, no longer slave, not chained to it, no gate, no guard, no keeper, no guru, master, teaching.”  “Black Sheep” is a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, and “It’s a coming” and “The End” are apocalyptic.

That’ll be the end of arms stretched wide, of begging for bread, of emptiness inside.  And the sea, so wide and treacherous, and the land, so dark and dangerous, so far left behind.  That’ll be the end of the war, when we finally lay down the barrel and the blade and go home.– Natalie Merchant, ‘The End’