Natalie Merchant

TrackAlbum
Beloved WifeTigerlily
My SkinOphelia
Life Is SweetOphelia
Frozen CharlotteOphelia
MotherlandMotherland
I'm Not Gonna BegMotherland
House CarpenterThe House Carpenter's Daughter
OwensboroThe House Carpenter's Daughter
Adventures Of IsabelLeave Your Sleep
If No One Ever Marries MeLeave Your Sleep

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Contributor: Annie Oehler

I will always vividly remember the emotion I experienced the first time I heard Natalie Merchant’s voice pouring out of my older sister’s stereo – that emotion was hatred. I was quite young at the time, still in grade school. I decided in that very moment to passionately hate the music of Natalie Merchant. This emotion seemed terribly mature at the time; no longer just the kid who placidly took in the music my older siblings and peers favored, I was now becoming a mature and opinionated listener. And like all mature, opinionated listeners, I loved to hate!

As I got older, though, something strange happened. Natalie Merchant began to wear me down, chip away at my defenses little by little. There have been periods in my life in which I have loved Natalie Merchant’s music above all others. That being said, though, I’ve always been able to understand the criticisms lobbed at her – her music is middle-of-the-road, preachy, sterile. In some ways, I agree with these assessments. When I think about the other music makers, past and present, who dominate my musical landscape – Talking Heads, The Clash, St. Vincent, Arcade Fire, Tuneyards, etc. – I always wonder, how did Natalie Merchant sneak into this party? One of these things is not like the other. And yet, there is something in the earnestness of Natalie Merchant’s songwriting that I always circle back to, that keeps her music relevant to me.

As a lyricist, the thing that Natalie Merchant does best is empathize. Unlike artists who only seem able to write about their own experiences and emotions, she is capable of fully immersing herself in someone else’s point of view, and someone else’s pain. Her writing is never blandly inspirational, something that songs like Beloved Wife (from her first solo album Tigerlily) and My Skin (from the second, Ophelia) make clear. Taking on the topics of terminal illness and the death of a spouse (I know – so rock ‘n’ roll), these songs are completely devoid of any effort to find a bright note. They offer no hollow platitudes. They’re tough songs to listen to, but in the best possible way.

 

My next two choices are also from Ophelia. Life Is Sweet is Merchant’s trickiest lyrical attempt, and the song that probably most irritates those that see her lyrics as preachy or even condescending. But there is a genuineness in her exhortations that make this song really endearing to me. Frozen Charlotte has lyrics that are much broader and open to interpretation, a style of writing that I wish Merchant employed more often. This song also pairs her with singer Karen Peris and the two play off each other beautifully. Musically and lyrically, this song has a transportive quality that stands out among her other work.

Motherland may be Natalie Merchant’s best album, although it failed to yield any real “hits”. The title track is her masterwork – if there was only one song that I could put forth as my reason for holding her work in such esteem, this would be it. This was the era when she really began to explore different musical textures and instruments that are scarcely found in much mainstream pop music. It’s a shame this isn’t her most well-known song. The same album saw her take a hard right into soul music, with I’m Not Gonna Beg as a real standout. This style of music may be where Natalie Merchant truly hits her stride. She sounds right at home singing a song that Aretha Franklin would’ve sung a few decades before.

Her next album, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, saw her taking on classic English and American folk songs, with House Carpenter and Owensboro as the standouts. She makes both of these very old songs seem completely her own. Her voice was never better than on these songs, especially the latter. Without milking notes or grandstanding in any way, she conveys despair, defiance, and thinly-veiled rage.

 

If Motherland is Merchant’s best song, then Leave Your Sleep may well be her best album. On paper, the idea of matching various forms of world music with lyrics adapted from poetry, much of it from the nineteenth century, seems destined to be bleak, staid, and a potential disaster. It is none of these things but instead an album full of life and pathos. Adventures Of Isabel, a poem about a supremely confident child facing several adult dangers, is matched with music that is buoyant and celebratory. Merchant sounds like she was having the time of her life when she recorded this song – a side of her personality that, regrettably, didn’t always shine through in her earlier work. If No One Ever Marries Me was taken from a poem with words that might have been interpreted musically in so many ways. With the title such as it is, the song could’ve been played as a weeper. But Merchant can see the wink in the poem and found a way to write music that embodied all of its emotions. Without writing a word herself, she makes this song undeniably her own.

You may have noticed I have not included any tracks from Merchant’s eponymous 2014 album. There are some excellent songs on this album, especially Texas, Go Down Moses, and Giving Up Everything. None of those tracks quite made my toppermost ten, but they are absolutely worthy of mention.

In the end, I guess the thing I like best about Natalie Merchant is that she has never compromised for the sake of popularity. She has never sold out. She always makes, and will continue to make, exactly the music that she wants to make. She will always sound like herself.

 

If you’d like to read more in-depth analyses of Natalie Merchant’s work, you can check out a blog I wrote for several years called the Natalie Merchant Compendium. Here you’ll find my thoughts on her songs with her former band, 10,000 Maniacs, and songs from her solo career that didn’t quite make the cut for toppermost, such as Thick As Thieves, Tell Yourself, Henry Darger, The Dancing Bear, The Letter and many, many more.

 

The Official Natalie Merchant Website

Leave Your Sleep interview

The Natalie Merchant Collection – deluxe 10-CD box set

10,000 Maniacs on Toppermost

Natalie Merchant biography (iTunes)

Annie Oehler writes about music these days, (“albeit sporadically”) at Annie’s Music-y Thoughts and Annie on Annie (a blog dedicated to the music of Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent) and you can also find her chatting about music on Twitter at @anniemusicblogs.

TopperPost #441

10 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    May 2, 2015

    I loved your article, but you missed my favourites, but then so much of it is essential. Leave Your Sleep is an astonishing album, and so eclectic that it’s hard to narrow it down to a choice, but the one that hypnotized me for a year (and still does) was Equestrienne. My opinion is that each Natalie Merchant solo album (except the sidetrack excursion into The House Carpenter’s Daughter) is better than the one before. I can’t think of any contemporary artist who I’d say that of. My “Best album of 2014” was the eponymous “Natalie Merchant”, and I have played it almost daily and still do. Easily my most played album of the last year. I’m delighted to see two videos from it, Giving Up Everything is fantastic. Ladybird has that change towards the end into late Beatles at their best. Maggie Said is like the third VU album (consciously, I think). Texas and Go Down Moses are both phenomenal. Ladybird and Go Down Moses also feature Simi Stone (from The Duke & The King), one of the most soulful singers around.

    • Annie Oehler
      May 14, 2015

      Thanks, Peter! I LOVE Equestrienne. It was incredibly hard to pick a favorite from Leave Your Sleep. I also really love Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience from that record. I have to be honest that I haven’t given the self-titled release as much time and attention as it deserves. But I certainly plan to spend some quality time with it. I do really like the songs you mentioned.

  2. David Lewis
    May 4, 2015

    Carnival is such a great song, I’d have to put it in somewhere. Nonetheless an entertaining list and an excellent introduction to a great artist. Looking forward to more from you.

    • Annie Oehler
      May 14, 2015

      Hi David. Thanks for your kind words. I have another Toppermost post coming out soon! I must confess…I’ve never really loved Carnival. I recognize all the reasons it’s a really good song. I’ve just never connected with it the way so many others have. My loss, I guess!

      • David Lewis
        May 14, 2015

        Hi Annie, the number of songs I’m supposed to like but don’t numbers in the hundreds! I couldn’t find a spot to put it anyway, such is the quality of your list.

  3. Andrew Shields
    May 6, 2015

    Annie, thanks for this fine list. I would probably have to have the version of ‘Carnival’ which appears on the Live In Concert: New York City album and ‘Sally Ann’ from the superb The House Carpenter’s Daughter. That album was my introduction to her music – heard it playing in a cd store in Dublin (never having heard her before), my wife asked the guy behind the counter who it was and we bought it on the spot. Still my favourite of her albums…

    • Annie Oehler
      May 14, 2015

      Hi Andrew. I too adore House Carpenter’s Daughter. It’s sadly overlooked, but I enjoy every single song on it. Have you ever heard the 10,000 Maniacs version of Sally Ann? That’s the first version I ever heard. It’s kind of interesting to hear the version she recorded 10 or so years prior to House Carpenter’s Daughter. Both are great.

  4. Andrew Shields
    May 15, 2015

    Annie, thanks for this. Will check it out…

  5. Peter Viney
    Oct 29, 2015

    Natalie Merchant has just re-recorded the whole of Tigerlily under the title “Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings.”

  6. Peter Viney
    Mar 18, 2016

    Natalie Merchant was at the Royal Albert Hall this week. I have reviewed her on my blog. The setlist will be particularly interesting. Just four from the Toppermost, and no sign of my current favourite, Jealousy, as redone on “Paradise Is There.”

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