27 June 2006

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:

"Every time
we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as the child that you never will be
again."

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.

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11 Comments:

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

Our Time In Eden is a great album, and I completely agree with you about the majesty of Stockton Gala Days. It's my favorite song on the disc.

I really like BMZ, too. Like The Weather and/or Cherry Tree have appeared on many a mix CD I've made.

 
At 9:19 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

I should add that I just don't appreciate Tigerlily or Ophelia nearly as much as the 10KM discs. I think it's because of the lack of a beat, more or less.

 
At 9:39 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

I agree with you, Adam, about Tigerlily and Ophelia. They're just not as overall impressive at the Maniacs' stuff, and I think the "lack of a beat" is a good estimation as to why. The weaker songs on those records have a certain spinelessness that makes the inoffensive at best and boring at worst.

However, there are some great songs, don't you think? "Wonder," "Beloved Wife," "Carnival," "Seven Years" on Tigerlily? "Life is Sweet," "Kind and Generous," and "My Skin" on Ophelia?

 
At 1:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so pleased by this post - have loved the Maniacs and Merchant for years and definitely think Our Time in Eden is their masterpiece - what a year for music 1992 was! Don't forget about the juvenilia, though - The Wishing Chair and Hope Chest contain some of my favorites - "Death of Manolete", "My Mother the War", "The Latin One", "Lily Dale"...the list of gems goes on and on.

 
At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Adam said...

Mark,
So recalling your mission statement about how this blog is about fostering discussion, I am going to spark a discussion ORGY by saying that while I like 10,000 Maniacs, I don't think they deserve any more praise than they get. Their sound takes me back to college and high school and it's not just because I listened to them when I was in college and high school. Their appeal is the same appeal as any other college band: semi-sophisticated music with quaint semi-sophisticated lyrics. I don't find anything they say or do to be particularly resonant or particularly deep. "These Are The Days" is a perfect example: it's treacle. (I've always wanted to use the word treacle.) The sentiment of that song is bland and uninteresting. Looking at the lyrics online now: "And as you feel it, youll know its true that you are blessed and lucky. Its true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you." Those lyrics, while not barf-inducing, are certainly not inspiration-causing. There are plenty of other bands with a similar musical style as 10,000 Maniacs with far more interesting lyrics. It's not the best example, but Magnetic Fields, for example. "My heart's running round like a chicken with its head cut off" says more to me than a whole catalogue of Natalie Merchant. I think you're right about her earth-mothery image hurting her, but that image isn't only fostered by her look--it's fostered by her sound and her message. It can be lovely, true, but it can also be hoaky. I guess I'm just not a big fan.
Sincerely yours,
Adam

 
At 9:39 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

Hi Adam,

Thanks so much for writing. It's great to get some meat for discussion!

While I think I understand your points about the quality of Merchant's lyrics, I disagree with them. (At least when she was with the Maniacs. Her wordsmithing has become increasingly self-indulgent and preachy during her solo career.)

I think that at her best, Merchant is far from quaint. And while the lyrics to "These Are Days" are arguably on the more simplistic side of her work, I don't think simple is analgous with bad.

Take Bob Dylan: "To Make You Feel My Love," while beautiful, doesn't get much deeper than "I'd go hungry/I'd go black and blue/I'd go crawling down the avenue." That's a straightforward declaration of a familiar sentiment, but the spare language (and melody) make it work. The same is true of "These Are Days."

"These are the days
you might fill with laughter
until you break.
These days
you might feel a shaft of light
make its way
across your face."

To me, a straightforward declaration of how important it is to have gratitude for being alive.

Which leads me to an aside:

Is it possible that we are predisposed to dismiss as treacle any positive expression in art? Are we conditioned to believe that happiness, gratitude, or hope are naive and, therefore, unsophisticated? I think we are. Anyway...

I'd also put forward the following lyrics from "Stockton Gala Days" as examples of Merchant being interesting and surprising both in her choice of subject and the way in which she explores it...

"That summer fields grew high
with foxglove stalks and ivy--
wild apple blossoms everywhere.

Emerald green like none I have seen,
apart from dreams
that escape me.
There was no girl as warm as you.

How I've learned to please
to doubt myself in need,
you'll never know...

That summer fields grew high;
we had wildflower fever.
We had to lay down where they grew.

How I've learned to hide,
how I've locked inside:
you'd be surprised if shown.
But you'll never,
you'll never know."

(What you can't hear in just reading these lyrics in that Merchant's voice raises to a wail by the final verse, as though she is torn apart by the emotion of what's she singing.)

I find "Stockton Gala Days" to be a poignant evocation of how painful it can be to realize you've changed. The speaker remembers her past with her friend as being achingly perfect... the kind of perfection only provided by memory. The speaker is remembering a time when she was better at being herself than she is now, and she feels guilt about how her new, insecure identity is tarnishing the perceived ideal of a youth she's lost.

I think that's sophisticated and beautiful.

 
At 10:37 AM, Blogger Laura B said...

"Is it possible that we are predisposed to dismiss as treacle any positive expression in art? Are we conditioned to believe that happiness, gratitude, or hope are naive and, therefore, unsophisticated? I think we are. Anyway..."

Oooo, I just can't help responding to what I think is a really interesting aside. Mark, I agree with you. I think that musicians and artists of all kinds do tend to be disdainful of any work that projects unabashed positivity. It's true that a lot of fantastic and critically admired work has been produced out of deep anguish or suffering (Sylvia Plath, Tori Amos' early work) or explores very dark imagery (Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Schubert's Winterreise, Depeche Mode, the work of David Lynch). The strongest work, in my opinion, contains complexity of emotion or expression; anything that is too simplistic becomes trite or boring, be it all flowers-n-sunshine or dark black gloom. I do think that many of us "trained" folk are somewhat conditioned to interpret any glimmer of happiness, as you said, as unsophisticated. Which is sad, because what does that say about our internalized and deep sense of cynicism?

Yet, I think Adam's beef (please excuse the inevitable food pun) is that he's missing a complexity and breadth of expression in Merchant's/10TM's music. I don't totally disagree with him, although for me, it's more on musical than lyrical grounds.

I hope that all made some kind of sense...

 
At 11:19 AM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

Our cultural and artistic relationship to happiness has been one of my favorite subjects for years.

Particularly for artists of our generation (i.e.--in their 20s and early 30s), there's a tendency to treat cynicism as thought it were synonymous with intelligence and insight. The theater is the prime example, with the plays of Adam Rapp taking center stage.

But announcing that things in the world are screwed is not insightful. It's easy. Remaining mired in that cynicism is lazy.

The truly insightful artists are the ones who can see the negative elements of the world and realize that they do not cancel out the good.

And vice versa... Laura's point about seeing complexity, essentially.

I respond most deeply to art that acknowledges the darker parts of life and refuses to let them become definitive. To maintain optimism while seeing that we are nibbled and frayed by life is difficult but endlessly rewarding.

That last sentence is a parphrase of a sentiment in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," one of my favorite books and pretty much the bible of my ideas on this type of furious optimism.

 
At 4:38 PM, Anonymous Adam said...

Mark,
I had fun writing my discussion starting response but I must confess I wrote it in a critically suspect way: I haven't listened to 10TM in a long time and though I own "Our Time In Eden," I only listened to it once and put it away. So if I was going to engage you in a fair debate I would replay it and re-listen to it. Suffice it to say that my unwillingness to do this corresponds to whatever unconscious dislike I have for 10TM. I deleted them off my iPod last year and never looked back. Ok, so maybe your initial article makes me want to look back. Maybe I will look back. Ok, I'm looking back.

Meanwhile, I want to take it upon myself to think of great songs that are written about being happy. Here is a list that I'll write off the top of my head (and scanning my iTunes songs):

1. Feelin' Groovy--Simon and Garfunkel.
2. Shiny Happy People--R.E.M.
3. I Got The Sun In the Mornin' and the Moon at Night--Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun)
4. Best of My Love--The Emotions ("Doesn't take much to make me happy...")
5. God Only Knows--The Beach Boys
6. Happy--The Rolling Stones (I just put this on a mix for Craig)
7. Chapel of Love
8. I Can See Clearly--Johnny Nash
9. If I Were A Bell from Guys and Dolls
10. Blue Skies as sung by Ella Fitzgerald
11. Something So Right--Paul Simon and also Annie Lennox
12. For Once In My Life--Stevie Wonder
13. She Likes Basketball from Promises, Promises (it's just a very happy song sung by Jerry Orbach way off pitch)
14. Good Day Sunshine by The Beatles (which has been ruined by cleaning product commercials)
15. Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
16. Ice Cream as sung by Barbara Cook
17. 14th Street by Rufus Wainwright
18. Maria from West Side Story

Ok I just spent 30 minutes doing that. But it was fun. I'm not even sure what point we were trying to prove but here are some observations: there's a fine line between "i'm in love" songs and happy songs; musical theater is a better medium for a happy song than other forms of music. Have you heard Audra McDonald's "Happy Songs"? They're pretty happy.

Fondly,
Adam

 
At 9:01 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

Okay, I listened to the songs you suggested from Tigerlily and Ophelia. After about 20 seconds my mind disconnected from them and I set about my work. Before I knew it, the songs were over. I tried to pay attention; really, I did. There was just nothing there. The instrumentation was lush but... boring. Her voice was beautiful... but boring. :shrug: I like slow ballads, but NM's solo work just doesn't do it for me.

(And it's "In My Tribe" that I like, not "Blind Man's Zoo.")

 
At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Diana said...

Mark,

Praise you with great praise! As a rabid fan of both R.E.M and Merchant I have always been dissapointed by her 'background' status.


'Motherland' is one of the best albums of the past 10 years, in my not so humble opinion.

 

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