A couple of weeks ago I finally had the opportunity to see Natalie Merchant in concert again at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville, WA. It had been about 16 years since I last saw her in Philadelphia on the Motherland tour. All those years ago in Philadelphia – a concert emblazoned in my memory. Natalie had just released her 3rd solo album, her set list was tight, and her vocals were powerful. Even then, she refused to rely heavily on her hit heavy back catalogue with 10,000 Maniacs. Lost in the moment, lost in the music – it was an amazing show. Flash forward 16 years or so and I found myself surrounded by people of all ages anticipating Ms. Merchant’s arrival to the stage. The open air filled with her unique voice, songs, and strings. Fiery and a bit more wise, she played for over 3 hours, again eschewing most of her hits with 10,000 Maniacs in favor of her lustrous solo career. Older, wiser, leaning more heavily on string embellishments – different, yet familiar. Natalie Merchant is like no other.
The tour was put together in support of The Natalie Merchant Collection – a 10 disc box set that packages all of her studio albums together including a disc of rarities and a new album entitled Butterfly. You’d be forgiven for not realizing Ms. Merchant has put out so many albums – her last few releases have flown under the radar a bit, which was one of her reasons for putting the box together. Butterfly follows 2015’s Paradise Is There – which was an orchestral reinterpretation of 1995’s Tigerlily. This new album expands the concept to some of her later albums with the added bonus of 4 new songs. Whereas 2014’s self titled album had a tendency to revel in darkness, this new album takes some of those sentiments and twists them into a sense of beauty. Not better or worse, just different. The string embellishments work well with the older songs and really feel integral to the new songs. Another album highlight from Natalie Merchant in a career full of them.
Butterfly sets the tone for the album. Pure poetry for lyrics, mournful strings, and stunning vocals. “I saw a butterfly lift in the wind, drift for a while and come back again / Sweet, aching labor, hour after hour, tasting the nectar of every flower / Over and over, she plays the game, so many times but it’s always the same / Poor Butterfly”. The string arrangement is simply stunning – tapping into the listener’s emotions with ease. The last 2 minutes of the song are devoted to an instrumental overture / epilogue. Stunning. Frozen Charlotte and Ophelia provide back to back middle of the album highlights. The arrangements here show the songs in a new light and provide a deeper sense of connection. Ophelia in particular benefits from the new string arrangements – transporting the listener to another time & place altogether. It repeats the trick of devoting the last few minutes to string laden epilogue which is simply sublime. Andalucia is another instant classic. A new song that feels familiar instantly, it is imbued with sadness, regret, and longing. Yet it provides that sense of euphoria that only the best songs can give. Lyrically, this is Natalie laying down pure poetry. “Damned, feel my sudden fall from grace; veil can’t hide my face / Dream, how I dream but I always wake / Try, but there’s no escape / Sigh, under Thy celestial dome / Lost, miles from home on a sapphire golden coast below / Andalucía”. Majestic strings. A perfect album closer.
Butterfly is only available as part of the box set – and last I checked, this was physical copies only (I bought mine at the show). The price is right though – you can buy the box for about $45 directly from Natalie Merchant. You absolutely won’t regret it. One of the most important artists of the last 40 years with a revolutionary and inspiring vision has delivered yet again.
Verdict: Orchestral Masterpiece
For Fans of: José González, 10,000 Maniacs, Sia, Patti Smith, R.E.M.
- Butterfly (new song)
- She Devil (new song)
- Baby Mine (new song)
- Frozen Charlotte (original appears on 1998’s Ophelia)
- Ophelia (original appears on 1998’s Ophelia)
- The Worst Thing (original appears on 2001’s Motherland)
- The Man In The Wilderness (original appears on 2010’s Leave Your Supper)
- My Skin (original appears on 1998’s Ophelia)
- Vain & Careless (original appears on 2010’s Leave Your Sleep)
- Andalucia (new song)