Let Us Now Praise Famous Merchants
NOTE: Edits added to bottom of post...
Natalie Merchant should be just as revered as Michael Stipe.
Whoa! Are them fightin' words? I don't think so.
If Stipe is the unassailable king of the college-rock movement that hit its peak in the late 80s and early 90s--just before grunge turned the volume up on anguished sensitivity and transformed it into bitter angst--then Natalie Merchant is queen.
Consider these facts:
(1) 10,000 Maniacs made three brilliant records ("Our Time in Eden," "In My Tribe," and "MTV Unplugged") and one mostly-brilliant record ("Blind Man's Zoo.") That's more than most artists ever hope to accomplish. And when she went solo, Merchant released two risky projects ("Tigerlily" and "Ophelia") that though not as consistent as her work with the group, still offered a handful of great songs each (including the top 10 hit "Carnival.")
(2) Millions of people bought said records, even though the Maniacs never acheived the stratospheric sales of R.E.M. or U2 (the overrated, pompous dukes of the college music court). Still, the figures aren't shabby. "Unplugged" sold 3 million copies, while "Eden" and "Tribe" both sold 2. "Ophelia" and "Zoo" went platinum, and "Tigerlily" sold an amazing FOUR MILLION albums. That's as much as the most successful albums ("Automatic for the People," "Out of Time," and "Monster") R.E.M. ever released.
Now I'm not saying sales and quality always go together, yet Merchant's music has both.
To prove my point with a little more focus, let me draw your memories back to "Our Time in Eden," which is easily one of the best albums of the 90s and certainly Merchant's masterpiece:
Fourteen years after its 1992 release, this album still stands out as a rare and ambitious attempt in popular music to capture some of the most ineffable elements of living. If that sounds breathy and sentimental, it's only because the songs on this record refuse to be defined by anything but emotional language. There's an aching sincerity in the subject matters, the instrumentation, and certainly in Merchant's ragged teardrop of a voice. Always known as an intellectual singer, on this collection she uses her mind to plumb her heart.
And when she digs into feelings, Merchant never comes up with familiar odes to romantic love. This is true of all Maniacs records. Leave love songs to the rest of them. Natalie Merchant is going to write about illiteracy, contaminated water, and poverty, dammit!
Here, however, she's writing songs about longing. You know how bittersweet sadness can make it hard to breathe, leaving you with a dull ache in the chest that comes from not exhaling and also trying very, very hard to absorb every detail of an experience before life requires you to move forward and let this moment recede into memory? The entire album is about that pain in the chest.
Yet even though her theme is consistent, Merchant and bandmates examine it from 13 different angles. On "These Are Days," the sadness becomes joyous as she reminds us to celebrate these fleeting moments while we have them. The rollicking drums and electric guitar have a propulsion that matches the enthusiasm of the lyric. It's an anthem to appreciating your life, like what Emily would sing if she had learned her lessons in "Our Town" before she died.
Then there are devastated songs like "How You've Grown," a piano ballad in which the singer looks at her--or his, Merchant often sings across gender--child and laments how quickly the child has grown. The narrator was an absent parent, and now he/she is filled with a regret that is expressed in the chorus, which Merchant repeats to an agonized wail at the end of the track. The chorus goes:
we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as the child that you never will be
Importantly, that song follows directly after "Jezebel," in which a woman chastises herself for staying married to a man even though she doesn't love him. I've always thought that "How You've Grown" is about the same speaker, years after leaving her husband. Now she realizes that escaping an unwanted marriage cost her a relationship with her child.
Like "How You've Grown," "Jezebel" also builds to a climactic end, though it is much more intense. Drums and violins slash through the song's dirgeful opening pace, as though the woman's anguish over not loving her husband has become so strong that she cannot hold it back, and it finally consumes even the sound of her lament.
And, really, how many major label artists provide songs that invite that much thinking? How many artists have the sensitivity to think about such topics for their material?
Other regret-laden subjects on the album include murder ("I'm Not the Man"), media saturation ("Candy Everybody Wants"), and the solitude of life on the prairie for 19th century pioneer women ("Gold Rush Brides.") Track after track, Merchant offers surprising points of view and rich ways of exploring them.
Her bandmates match her every move by crafing music that surprises, too. This album could easily have been a downer in which every track sounded the same, but the musical vocabulary is broad. Brass, strings, drums, guitars... all meld to create a variety of tempos and emotions. Continuing from what I said about "These Are Days," joy follows melancholy follows anger follows peace.
And there's also majesty. The song "Stockton Gala Days"--in which the speaker reconnects with her childhood friend, only to realize that the friend reminds her of the idealistic person she has forgotten how to be-- is one of my favorite songs of all time. My God. There's an epic tale of inner tragedy being told here in less than 6 minutes. The lyrics are plaintive and simple ("How I've learned to please/To doubt myself in need/You'll never know"); the music is rich with piano and woodwinds; it's astonishing.
Surely the woman behind an album of this level deserve renown, particularly when it's the highpoint of an already amazing body of work.
But while all the attention is going to R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs seem to be getting lost.
For instance, Stipe and Co. always show up in those "Best Of All Time" lists, but Merchant almost never does. In the book "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die," R.E.M. are included four times. Radiohead shows up five. Even obscure elctronic act Orbital gets two entries. But 10,000 Maniacs and Merchant? Not included at all.
And Merchant has never won a damn Grammy. Or even been nominated in a major category. You'd think the industry that falls on itself to praise Bono's every jackass vocal could make room for her. (But I digress. Complaining about the inanity of award distribution is like noting that the McDonald's bathroom has a funny smell.)
There are plenty of reasons why attention seems to be fading from Merchant's work as time goes on. As my friend Rachel pointed out, her persona was always earth-mothery, which is hardly hip. Plus, she's never been controversial or freaky. Just bookish and a little odd. That doesn't draw as much attention as a heroine overdose.
But I think it's time to put Natalie Merchant back in the forefront of our minds. Do not let her become a footnote! She was responsible for some of the most engaging popular music of her era, and we should avail ourselves of it.
So let's add at least "Our Time in Eden" to the list and make it 1002 albums you must hear before you die.
EDITED TO ADD: Matt Cohen, a fellow blogger and the friend of a friend, was kind enough to reference this post on his blog Nervous Breakdown. One of his readers correctly pointed out that I should've mentioned early Maniacs albums like "Wishing Chair" and the collected retrospective of their burgeoning work called "Hope Chest." Those songs are trippy and sonically very experimental. They've always sounded a little dated to me--like Blondie chanelled through a vocoder--but they're undeniably interesting, and they point to great things to come. They're also offer another parallel to R.E.M., who sounded similarly out there on early albums like "Reckoning." Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant were pretty much on the same track until Stipe started hanging out with Courtney Love.