A lot of change can come in a decade. For Natalie Merchant, who reemerges today with her first album of new music in thirteen years, the changes reached both ends of the emotional spectrum. A daughter was born, a mother passed away, a marriage fell apart. And how does Merchant respond? With an album full of distilled thoughts, easily the most intense collection of her solo career.
“Ladybird” starts things off by putting the issue of her divorce front and center, specifically, the confusion, sadness, and indecision that cages a person as they work through that experience. The music mirrors the long, sad process by moving from the happy, lilting introduction into the song’s body, with Merchant’s lovely and textured voice carrying all of that emotional weight.
You don’t know how to leave
and you don’t now where to fly.
You don’t know what you feel
but you know it’s not satisfied today
While the concerns and emotions of this album may be quite raw and stripped-down, Merchant has chosen to build the music in many layers, employing a large cast of backing vocalists, horns, and strings. And Natalie has two secrets weapons on this project: the organ play of the great John Medeski and her own sensitive production decisions. In the wrong hands, such a big sonic palette might have flattened out the songs. Instead, the music supports the thought vignettes while moving easily between styles.
“Go Down Moses” addresses the Katrina disaster with a soul/gospel vibe, driven by John Medeski’s understated organ play; “It’s a-coming” sets the many concerns for the world against a funky, slide-stepping arrangement; and “Texas” speaks to greed and political chicanery (Is there a difference?) over some country-tinged acoustic folk.
There are a few turns here that really took my ears by surprise. Though the topic of “Lulu” — a lament for Louise Brooks — couldn’t be farther from Blind Man’s Zoo-era “Dust Bowl,” the delivery draws a parallel, with gentle waves of slowly-building emotion. Elegiac and intense. And then there’s “Black Sheep.” It’s temptation painted with a bluesy, horn-laced slink that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record.
Early on, it seemed to me that “Ladybird” was the emotional center of this album, but a companion piece is “Giving Up Everything.” A person in a relationship that slowly fragments feels locked-in, physically and otherwise. At the point of realization — when you know that it’s over and can finally recognize what’s been given up — there can be a letting go, and maybe a sad sense of relief. This is beautifully rendered, as is the entirety of Merchant’s new record. It’s great to have her back.