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| Highest Rated 2006
Mother of Reinvention
Natalie Merchant: Motherland
Posted: November 15,
Natalie Merchant's third studio album, Motherland, marries the lyrical
and thematic eclecticism of Tigerlily, her 1995 debut, with the larger
sonic palette evident on her 1998 sophomore effort, Ophelia. The result
is her most accomplished, if uneven, effort to date.
In Merchant's admirable, if daunting, quest to explore tones as diverse as
Arabic-tinged strings and flutes ("This House Is on Fire") and orchestral
chamber pieces ("The Ballad of Henry Darger," "The Worst Thing") she sacrifices
any hope of achieving a musical sense of unity, settling instead for a
sprawling, fragmented patchwork devoid of a definable center.
Lyrically, like most of Merchant's work, Motherland wrestles with
issues both personal ("I'm Not Gonna Beg") and political ("Motherland"). "Tell
Yourself" manages to integrate the words and music most effectively, with piano,
organ and acoustic guitar seamlessly backing the cleverly phrased, pointedly
feminist barb: "Ever since Eden we're built for pleasing everyone knows/And ever
since Adam cracked his rib and let us go I know/Oh yes I know what you tell
yourself/You tell yourself."
The highlight of the album comes in the form of Gospel music heavyweight
Mavis Staples, who contributes vocals on two R&B-flavored songs ("Saint Judas"
and "Build a Levee"), and the results are truly outstanding. One can't help but
speculate what might have come from a release comprised entirely of such
expertly executed material.
On the downside, the radio-friendly, yet ordinary, "Just Can't Last" would
have been at home on either of Merchant's previous two efforts, while "Golden
Boy" grates with an unsubtle condemnation of the media's fascination/star-making
focus on high school-aged mass murderers.
Motherland glitters with some of the finest, most inventive tracks
Natalie Merchant has ever recorded, yet lacks thematic consistency and struggles
too hard to find its musical identity, rendering it one of the most engaging,
yet frustrating works by a major artist this year. With her willingness to
explore new musical landscapes, however, there's little doubt that Merchant's
future endeavors will still demand close scrutiny.
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