by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
I don't know what it is about Natalie Merchant's music -- something hypnotic almost. I wouldn't rate her previous solo efforts (Tigerlilly and Ophelia) all that highly, but they somehow wind up in my CD player again and again. One thing I know I like is the lyrics. Even back in her 10,000 Maniac days, she wrote songs that are more like literature than music. She's even been called the Emily Dickinson of Pop.
On her first two solo efforts, she started to let her dark side shine, but on her latest, I'd have to say I'm downright worried about her. If this batch of songs was any more depressing, they might have had to print the suicide prevention hotline number right there in the liner notes. As near as I can tell, here's a quick look at what the
songs on Motherland are about:
The end of the world ("This House is On Fire"); the despair and desolation of urban America ("Motherland"); the injustice of our penal system ("Saint Judas"); revenge ("Put the Law on You"); avoiding pain by steeling yourself to become emotionally unavailable ("Build a Levee"); teen murderers ("Golden Boy"); the loss of a sensitive, misunderstood soul ("Henry Darger"); love as an empty promise ("The Worst Thing"); bulimia ("Tell Yourself"); the futility of trying to help the downtrodden ("Just Can't Last"); sacrificing a trusting nature to avoid being "taken" ("Not in The Life"); and wanting to get dumped the hard way ("I'm Not Gonna Beg").
Whoa. I guess they call it the blues, but I like it better when there's a smidgen of humor to go with it. This stuff is a downer, and it's too bad, since it's probably Merchant's most accomplished CD musically -- if you like her sound, you'll like this CD.
Her band sounds great, with session veterans joined on a few tracks by legendary blues singer Mavis Staples and stringmaster Greg Leisz, who lends his banjo and mandolin, giving the CD an O Brother Where Art Thou? feel (no surprise, since the co-producer is T-Bone Burnett, who produced that hit soundtrack). And a song like "Motherland," with its lilting chorus ("Motherland cradle me/close my eyes/lullaby me to sleep/Keep me safe/lie with me/stay beside me/don't go"), could be a post 9/11 anthem -- except that it really seems to be about how crappy America is. But hey, they wanted to make Bruce Springsteen's downer "Born in the U.S.A." into an anthem for Ronald Reagan's reelection. Maybe nobody listens to the lyrics anyway.