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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002

Merchant's rich harvest

When Natalie Merchant was a member of 10,000 Maniacs, the seminal '80s folk-rock group, her songs betrayed a liberal social consciousness. In contrast, her 1995 solo debut, "Tigerlily," was willfully insular: a song cycle of love-gone-bad and a glum, some might say pissed-off, cover portrait. Characterized more by a melancholy mood than the catchy tunes she had once been famous for, the album nevertheless was a hit.

But her following two long-players -- the concept album "Ophelia" and a live set -- seemed to lack purpose, as if she were marking time until inspiration returned. "Motherland," her new CD, feels like a renewal. It's there not only in the vocals -- Merchant's unmistakable alto has taken on a pleasing huskiness -- but in the material, which reveals a songwriter looking out at the world again. And the reviews have been positive, something Merchant takes with a grain of salt.

"A lot of people have told me it's the best thing I've ever done," she says over the phone from Hawaii, where she's resting before leaving on a tour of New Zealand, Australia and Japan. "But I decided long ago that if I wasn't going to get angry when I read things I didn't like, then I shouldn't be excited when I read things I did like."

One of the reasons the album succeeds so well is producer T-Bone Burnett. Merchant's solo work has always favored spare arrangements, but Burnett fills them out without actually adding any instruments. In deference to the title, the album is enveloping and warm.

"I'd done my previous records without a producer, and I thought it might be interesting to learn from someone else. The list was short -- Daniel Lanois and T-Bone Burnett -- and, at the time, Daniel was working on his own album. I was lucky, because T-Bone almost never works with female artists other than his wife [singer-songwriter Sam Phillips]. He said he doesn't want to make something that will compete with her records."

Phillips and Merchant, while different in style, probably appeal to the same kind of record buyers; namely, people who prefer the kind of classic, folk-based lyrical precision of which the two women seem to be the last remaining practitioners in this day of you-didn't-ask-but-let-me-tell-you- anyway songwriters like Lisa Loeb and Michelle Branch.

In other words, Burnett helps bring out the natural ambiguities in a good song. Take "Golden Boy," a murky meditation on celebrity that purposely confuses media images of what's cool with the kind of notoriety that emerges from the barrel of a gun.

"I was thinking about America's obsession with kid murderers, kids who kill their classmates. The morbid fascination is what's so shocking, the way these boys go from absolute obscurity to front-page news and stay there for weeks."

On "Tell Yourself," Merchant approaches a similar theme from a more personal viewpoint, as a young woman looking into the mirror and trying to convince herself that she isn't the ugliest person on the planet.

"My niece just went through her 13th year, and I talked to her a lot while I made the album. She felt very awkward, just like anybody when they're 13. I wanted to write a song that said, 'Don't buy into the body thing that the media throws in your face.' It's so pervasive, young girls hate themselves."

Being a public person, however, Merchant must certainly have to wrestle with her own self-image.

"I've always been lazy about my appearance. My mother was a tomboy: She didn't wear makeup or a bra. She was a secretary at a college, and in the summer she painted houses. So I didn't have a very feminine role model. I never had that indoctrination. When I do television and have to wear makeup, I find it very alien."

How does that explain the glamour photos that graced "Ophelia"?

"Those were part of a short film, a kind of Cindy Sherman experiment. I was six different women and each spoke a different language. It was a multimedia project, and if all you saw was the album cover, it probably wouldn't make any sense. I think it was also a response to 'Tigerlily,' where I was very anti-image."

In that context, the new album cover, which shows Merchant sitting under an apple tree, might be considered a compromise. It's as if Walker Evans were hired to shoot production stills for Natalie Wood.

"The original cover was quite different. The concept was that I would be with some schoolchildren and everything would be normal, except they'd all be wearing oxygen masks. The thing is, we did the photo session on Sept. 11. The kids were holding an American flag, wearing oxygen masks and standing on the banks of the Hudson River. We know now that the flight from Boston went right over our heads. It was very eerie. Later, everyone started panicking about anthrax. I thought, I can't control what people think when they see this image."

Still, the album can't help but remind the listener of recent events, especially the opening track, "House on Fire." Despite the repeated line "I don't have the gift of prophesy," the song sounds pretty damn prophetic. "Soon come the day this tinderbox blows in your face," Merchant sings against a haunting complement of Middle Eastern strings. "It's gonna catch like a house on fire and spark an evil blaze."

"I was thinking about insurrection, and the oppression that causes insurrection. There's an undercurrent of racial tension in America, and many people in the inner cities are responding to it by committing crimes against each other, lashing out but not really knowing who to lash out at."

Two songs with similar themes feature vocal assistance from the great gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples.

"Mavis' father, Pops Staples, practically wrote the theme songs for the civil rights movement, and because he wanted to cross over from gospel to pop, he could reach people like me. I would have been very slow coming to gospel music if I hadn't heard the Staples Singers as a kid, so Mavis immediately came to mind when I wrote 'St. Judas,' which is a song about lynching. I didn't just want a great voice, I wanted someone with a history."

Natalie Merchant: Feb. 6, 7 p.m., at Laforet Museum Harajuku, Tokyo (Smash, [03] 3444-6751); and Feb. 7, 7 p.m., at On Air Osaka (Smash West, [06] 6361-0313). Tickets are 6,500 yen in advance.

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