It's hard to point to the exact moment when Natalie Merchant, revered heroine of the college rock sound as lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs throughout the 1980s, became Natalie Merchant, your Mum's favourite background music.
It must have been sometime around the release of her second solo record, the moody Ophelia (1998). Certainly, the shift took place while I was at university (1995-99), because I remember watching it happen. One day, it seemed, everyone was listening to Merchant's excellent solo debut Tigerlily, and then it was only some dedicated fans, and then it was almost no one. It didn't help matters that, after dropping 2003's pretty flat Motherland, Merchant seemed to vanish from the music scene.
She made herself easy to forget; we needed to be reminded (as we sometimes were when her songs would pop up on movie soundtracks) of just how terrific her best work can be. But the creeping sense that she was now to be understood as a '90s-era MOR artist, a Women and Songs and Lilith Fair artist, was pretty widespread. There's a lot of gendered bullshit going on with Merchant's shift from pop stardom to apparent guilty pleasure, obviously. File under: the Sarah McLachlan effect, that evil alchemy that turns vital female artists into "female artists" in the estimation of erstwhile fans.
All of that is to say that I sat down to listen to Merchant's first record of new material in over a decade with some genuine excitement. If there's an artist more deserving of a critical and popular re-appraisal and rejuvenation, I don't know who it is.
It's a long shot, but with this self-titled record, we might just have what we've been waiting for. Natalie Merchant offers a dark, slippery collection of songs, a decidedly gloomy trip through the artist's vision of Americana. Sparsely produced, melancholic, quiet, this record slopes languidly from track to track, demanding your attention and offering few moments of release from the tension. Only the jaunty opening track "Ladybird" and the smooth, gospel-inflected "Go Down Moses" (apparently about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) could be called "upbeat."
This is no pop record — in fact, my only real reservation lies in its being perhaps too sleepy — and it's hardly benign enough to qualify as middle of the road. Instead, Merchant has offered us a challenging, often starkly beautiful, collection. It's, well… it's a wonder. (Nonesuch)