WHEN SHE WAS the lyricist, vocalist and focal point of 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant was known for topical lyrics and social awareness. With her second solo album, the 35-year-old artist has deepened her lyrical scope while narrowing her melodic style.
Commercially, the consequences of this ethereal sound may be questionable, but 10,000 Maniacs were never big hitmakers at any rate. Merchant seems to have zeroed in on a style that fits her artistically and personally. It is a melancholy spirit that hits many artists once their fan base has been established, and they are free to offer the music of their heart rather than the pablum for their pocketbook.
It is clear there is more ambition for the art than for the charts. Merchant takes on the multiple personality of seven ill-fated Ophelias, moving from a “bride of God” to a “rebel girl” – from a “stalking suffragette” to a human cannonball. The seven characters have inner pain in common, as Merchant paints their tale with the sweet plainness of her detached vocal in an enchanting swirl of a four-chord progression.
The pain of life is certainly not uncharted territory for a person whose lyrics were always as morose as they were bookish. Merchant asks to be remembered in a happy context in the vocal croon of melancholia called Frozen Charlotte, but that is the only light in the bleakness. The same can be said for the swirling folk pop piece My Skin, despite its lovely orchestration and harmonies, the elegy King of May, and the slow and sombre pieces Thick as Thieves and Effigy.
The dourness reaches its nadir in The Living, a waltz tale of an apparent alcoholic contemplating suicide as the only option.
Balance is provided, however, with the rest of the album, even if one would never call the whole work upbeat. Break Your Heart sees a downcast character in a run of bad luck warn, “Don’t make the same mistakes in your own life.” As the song builds into the album’s catchiest and most upbeat melody, Merchant’s message is that a survivor lives with an ethic of kindness in a cruel world.
More directly upbeat is the piano-cored Life is Sweet. Life can be painful and tough, especially when one carries a “bruise inside,” but it is to be savoured.
The gently percussive folk rocker Kind and Generous – which is as close to the contagious sound of 10,000 Maniacs as solo Merchant gets – is a litany of thanks towards those who give the singer blessing.
By the time the album closes, one has travelled with characters in all measure of pain and sadness and rejoiced with them as they discover the blessings of life. Having expressed the ultimate optimism in faith, Merchant has led the listener on an emotional roller coaster which is life itself.
Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.