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{CD cover} Ophelia
By Natalie Merchant
Elektra/Asylum 62196
Review by Andrew B. Currie

The Many Merchants of Ophelia

I first heard Natalie Merchant almost by accident, through the sharing of a vinyl album entitled "In My Tribe" bought by a co-worker from my typing pool back in 1987. The young singer with the distinctive voice and unique, poetic phrasings was fronting the alterna-rock group 10,000 Maniacs, and she immediately piqued my gay-specific curiosity when she gently chided Allen Ginsberg for his infatuation with young lads, in a terrific tune about the Beats.

That was "Hey Jack Kerouac", and last spring saw the release of Merchant's second solo album, Ophelia, with more of Ginsberg by way of the record's dedication to the now dead gay poet laureate and a song, "King of May", in tribute to this master and his vision.

Merchant's own muse -- and musical circle -- has come completely around since her days with the intellectual, folksy troubadour band that was more minstrel-like than maniacal. With Ophelia, Merchant is broadening the next ring, creating a lush and heavily orchestrated production that is as breathtaking as it is a departure from Tigerlily (her first solo album) and its stark and sparse compositions. Parallel to her artistic growth is a widening acceptance by the masses, though it may be a superficial infatuation due to the one buoyant radio hit, "Kind and Generous" with its effusive melodic repetitions of "la la la's" and "thank you, thank you, thank you's".

Well, thank you, Natalie. This record is no modest effort.

In fact, you can't help but wonder at how she pulled off such creativity with more commercial success nipping at her pretty heels. A clue to understanding this is to listen to Ophelia not backwards, but by playing the last tune first. It's a "reprise" of the title cut, but this time entirely instrumental. And the orchestra playing it succeeds with such classy, classical interpretations, you'd naturally think you had put on some chamber music by mistake.

{Natalie outside, smiling}

But Merchant's talent, and draw, has always seen the inclusion of classical elements; from woodwind instruments and piano, to Elizabethan-like phrasings and Dickinson-like poetry. A strong voice for the disenfranchised, she's also had quite a left-leaning social conscience which showed powerfully through her output and her public persona. A love-or-hate affair ensued, between her and critics, and when it wasn't love the alienation was rather mutual.

With this album, however, Merchant embarks on redefining those preconceived ideas of her stuffy, serious-only nature, and she gives the slip to anyone who tries to categorize her or draw a box around her with media-led notions of who she was as that college folk-rock Maniacs' singer. Her intention at the outset of this album was to approach recording it as "a series of workshops" with various musicians, instead of going into the studio with a pre-ordained Band and the needs of an established set of players.

And in trying to give the slip, and maybe a bit of the finger, to the critical public's pinning her down, she conceived of Ophelia as something of a concept album. Ergo, the multi-faceted Merchant emerges in a multiple personality work of many moods and personae, all at once a parody of women's identities (and her own) and a gregarious exploration of them, as embodied by various songs.

Not taking herself too seriously, but not throwing all caution -- and sense of self -- to the wind, the album highlights her enchanting voice in a sophisticated mix of the bright and the sombre, with music and lyrics that shine like circus ring lights or brood like satiny dark shadows.

After the opening drama of "Ophelia", the record gives us a bittersweet pill of pop with "Life is Sweet", in which the singer tries to give hope to the desperate, yet minds the too-quick passage of time.

Next is "Break Your Heart", which regrets the selfishness of "people shallow/ self-absorbed" and soothes away our daily oppressions through an understanding, lonely trumpet (courtesy of the excellent Chris Botti) and the hug of a sympathetic, soulful duet with N'Dea Davenport (formerly of The Brand New Heavies). It's as lonesome, yet as comforting, as the sound of a loon call late at night, across the lake.

Past the perky pop of "Kind and Generous", which was the mainstay of airplay for the promotion of this mostly non-mainstream sounding album, the tunes get darker and mysterious. "Frozen Charlotte" is a haunting duet with Karen Peris (from Innocence Mission), which aches in its melancholy just as the Wurlitzer wistfully chills our spine. The lyrics are mesmerising: "Still as the river grows in December/ Silent and perfect, blinding ice/ Spring keeps her promises/ No cold can keep her back/ I want you to remember me that way."What gay man with losses suffered so prematurely, can hear this and not feel a shiver?

"My Skin" is a sultry and sensual reclaiming of a woman's sexuality and self-esteem. Surprising none of her earlier fans, Merchant explores a difficult-to-sing about theme, this time concerning the romantic, physical rejection of a wife who has been disfigured by cancer. ("Do you remember the way that you touched me before/All the trembling sweetness I loved and adored/ Your face-saving promises whispered like prayers/ I don't need them"). The intense, intimately personal lyrics and mood become tides which wash away self-consciousness through the robust oboe and viola that shore up the independent spirit surfacing in this song.

A quiet, or rather unshowy, champion of selfless causes that reach out to many, Merchant doesn't need to wear a pink -- or a red -- ribbon to raise consciousness and touch the soul.

Also a testimony to another long-term survivor and independent soul, "King of May" is the lovely elegiac poem in honour of the poet who once good-naturedly rebuffed Merchant with an inscription in a book, in reference to her "Kerouac" teasing cheek.

"Thick as Thieves" is the album's most dense, indeed thick song; but in an organic and full sense of complex lyrics with her trademark use of iconic, religious imagery to damn the unholy works wrought upon humanity in the name of belief and religion. It segues neatly into the short but equally puzzling "Effigy", with its repeated emphasis on parody and illusion, and a harrowing lament sung in Tibetan by guest singer Yungchen Lhamo. Another long chill up the spine, the impact is unforgettable.

In "The Living" once again Merchant addresses alcoholism -- over a decade since "Don't Talk" from In My Tribe -- but this time has no angry rebuke. Instead, it takes an insider, first-person view which brings out a compassion in the listener that's hopefully wise, if sad. It's a beautiful measure of how she's grown, how she's matured as an artist and person, and is reaching a new pinnacle in that orbit.

She closes the album with an interpretation of the old gospel standard, "When They Ring The Golden Bells" that offers a final embrace of hope and goodwill, divinely dueted once more with Karen Peris. Then an instrumental finale, the "Ophelia" reprise.

Merchant knows she risks being out-sung by her occasional partners, like Peris, but takes that chance. A singer with great expression if not range, Merchant's critics have belaboured the problems she has with projection and enunciation, to the extent of negating what's here. She clearly shows capability and potential for technical command, and better vocal fitness -- something not to take too seriously but not to overlook, either.

{Natalie and Andy}

That said, after listening to this album right through, you feel the marvel of having witnessed the multiple musical faces, not of Eve, but of a masterful Merchant who has circled around you with incredible sounds and lyrics which will return to you in many manifestations, like the very best of music which resonates deeply in your own life. The many guises of Ophelia are each artful, each beautiful, and wholly extraordinary in their dazzling or poignant effects.

As a composite, this album reveals a singular, brilliant creativity which has borne ingenious results and given its creator a stunning metamorphosis of who she is as an artist. Natalie Merchant's graceful growth is a remarkable wonder with an artistic vision for this shaded, jaded old world.

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