I’ve been a fan of Natalie Merchant since hearing her pure, delicate vocals on Mermaid Avenue, the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration. The album was a mainstay of my student radio show back in the day, and I must have played this two or three times.
When I finally got round to listening to her solo albums, and then her band 10,000 Maniacs, I found a voice with a considerably greater dynamic and emotional range than that cameo betrays.
It’s been more than twelve years since her last album of original material, and time has weathered that voice a little more. Dropping the needle on Natalie Merchant is a less immediately dramatic experience than, say, Ophelia, her 1998 sophomore release, but the lyrical darkness remains, accompanied by a further drop in pitch and her customary gravity of delivery.
It’s no great sonic departure. Her band sound is still rooted in the 1980s, still laden with strings, but these aren’t necessarily bad things. “The End” has some of the best strings on a pop record I’ve heard in ages. “It’s A-Coming”, however, slips a bit too close to jam band mediocrity, Hammond organ and “funky” electric guitar, and the pastiche of New Orleans jazz on “Lulu (Introduction)” seems needless, heavy-handed.
Reportedly drawn from 14 years of writing, some of the material has dated in the meantime. If “Texas” is about George W. Bush, “Go Down Moses” must be about Hurricane Katrina, and back-to-back it feels a bit too much like a time capsule from the last decade, its potency somewhat lost in the intervening decade.
At her best, and this approaches it, Merchant is one of the most affecting vocalists of her or any other generation. Her phrasing is astonishing, Joni Mitchell-like in its ability to smooth occasionally wordy, inelegant lyrics and make them sound purposeful, even beautiful. Highly recommended.