Natalie Merchant straddles multiple genres, never comfortably fitting in any scene. With the 10,000 Maniacs she veered from post-punk / folk to jangle pop. With her solo works she found even wider acceptance with her radio ready, alternative pop sound. Personally, seeing Natalie Merchant in concert in 2001 for the Motherland tour was a highlight among the hundreds of shows I’ve been fortunate to catch. She owned the stage and made her audience feel the depth of the words she was singing so passionately. Motherland was her last record of original material for over a decade – 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter was a covers album, and 2010’s Leave Your Sleep was an album of lullabies dedicated to her daughter. Finally, we have a new album of original material – 13 years after the last album of original material (and that one happens to be my personal favorite solo record from Ms. Merchant). So, how’s the new record stack up? Read on…
The new record continues Natalie Merchant’s 30+ years of dealing with social issues whilst set to mostly catchy adult alternative music. Heavy stuff, indeed. This just might be the most orchestrated record of her career, but just when it feels like it’ll veer off into the middle of the road it throws some quirks into the mix. There were a few moments on her last record of original material where she really let loose – This House is on Fire and Build a Levee were songs that built to a crescendo and felt like Natalie was singing on the edge of Armageddon. Those moments don’t exist on the new record. I’m not sure if that is the difference between the late 30’s (Merchant’s age in 2001) and the early 50’s? At any rate, there is a slow burn across the new record. Restrained emotions, anger building just beneath the surface – this is a slightly new sound for her. And it works – gloriously so.
My Hungry Ghost of Hopefulness (highlights)
Opener Ladybird scared me initially, its introduction had me thinking of EZ listening just a bit. Natalie’s voice enters the mix and guides the song towards a soulful outpouring of emotion. Focus is front and center on Natalie Merchant’s voice – one of the most unique voices in music. Maggie Said is a haunting folk lament. It has to be said – even though a lot of her songs are not autobiographical, Ms. Merchant imbues the stories with a lived in feeling that is enchanting. She pleas “Holding back / What did I get for holding back? /…nothing / nothing, oh nothing that’s a fact”. Chilling. Giving Up Everything is the 1st single and signaled Natalie Merchant’s return. I think it embodies everything about this album – lush orchestration, emotion pouring out of the vocals, heart wrenching lyrics. It doesn’t get better than this. “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”. The video embedded below just adds another compelling element to this masterpiece. It’s A-Coming is a song about the Apocalypse over top of 70’s type funk with a guitar sound inspired by Carlos Alomar (David Bowie). A dark masterpiece. Sing this along with your friends “Pale-horse rider come / blistered by the morning sun / tell about what he can see / crystal ball of mercury / It’s a-coming. It’s gonna come”
Overall, this is a very strong album. The darker numbers worked a little better for me, though there isn’t a song on the album that I disliked. It is a worthy addition to Natalie Merchant’s oeuvre. Welcome back.
Verdict: A Welcome Return
For Fans of: 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Mazzy Star, Jewel, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel
- Maggie Said
- Go Down, Moses
- Seven Deadly Sins
- Giving Up Everything
- Black Sheep
- It’s A-Coming
- Lulu (introduction)
- The End