Sunday, April 25, 2010

Old Music: Natalie Merchant's Ophelia (1998)

Ok, let's just get this out of the way right now: I love Natalie Merchant. And if you had guessed that I'm on a NatMer (the nickname I've lovingly given her — only because she's earned it!) kick lately, you'd be absolutely correct.

Leave Your Sleep has left me completely mesmerized.

And because of that, I'm (perhaps a bit obsessively) going back through her catalogue and reassessing why I loved her in the first place.

Well, let's get to the heart of the matter here: way back in high school, I had girl friend (note: not "my" "girlfriend" — though I'm sure I would have liked for that to have happened at the time; and undoubtedly it has more than a little to do with my involvement with this album in the first place) who was rather keen on this album. I liked and respected her enough to the point that I would ditch everything else I was into at the time —that would be OutKast and Blackstar, in case you were wondering— to check an album that not only wasn't even on my radar; it was the sort of thing I actively avoided.

And, yeah, I hated it.

But why?

I had fallen neither in nor out of love... yet.

Besides the fact that it was nothing musically like anything else I was into at the time, there was nothing in the subject matter for me to grasp onto.

Why all the gloom? Why all the downtrodden, sadbastard moods? Why the general Eeyore-like nature of the whole thing?

It depressed the hell out of me, honestly.

I traded it in when that particular acquaintance exited my sphere of association, bought up all the latest indie hip hop 12" singles and I never looked back.

Of course.

When you're 17, this just isn't the sort of music that's rewarding; not to mention, sounds 'cool' coming out of your car in the parking lot before first period.

So, a year or so back when I was in the middle of a serious jangle pop kick, 10,000 Maniacs fell onto my radar. They made some seriously great music, but even through my re-evaluation of a band that I skipped over, one thing stood out to me above everything else, regardless of how much I enjoyed the music: that voice.

Yes, she was —and still is— awesome. Right up there with Morrissey, Otis Redding and Maxwell.

Truly, Natalie Merchant is one of my favorite vocalists ever.

And her performance on Ophelia is what I base a lot of that on.

But let's just get this out there right now: Ophelia is a bummer of an album. If you actually sit and listen to the words, it's downright gloomy. In retrospect, I find it a bit odd that the album is Natalie's most introspective and confrontationally personal that preceded a group of no less heartfelt works that were noticeably more about genre exercising than they were about the songwriter's experience.

She dodges the issue right away with the title track, supposing that the group of personal recollections that follows is nothing more than the memories of characters, but the performances are too specific, too passionate for any astute listener to fall for it.

No, I think, indeed, these are, for better or for worse, the pages of Natalie Merchant's diary being put into song form.

And I say 'for better or for worse' because not everything here is a wonderfully pretty little jangle floatabout; like she's just a Maniac forever. Nope. If Tigerlily implied a bit more of a serious slant and a matured melancholy approach to her music, Ophelia is that approach and philosophy taken to its absolute extreme.

Sure, 'Kind and Generous' was a huge hit. And it's definitely a rather jumpy little pop tune that supposes a lighthearted mood, but one listen to the lyrics and it's obviously that it's about a very intense breakup.

For all its minor keys and dissonant, sad turns, Ophelia has a quality of triumph to it. An aspect of jubilation amongst the emotional chaos. To put it simply: Ophelia is the ultimate breakup album.

Just have a look at the lyrics from 'My Skin':
"O, I need
The darkness
The sweetness
The sadness
The weakness
I need this

I need
A lullaby
A kiss goodnight
Angel sweet
Love of my life
O, I need this

Do you remember the way
That you touched me before
All the trembling sweetness
I loved and adored?

All of that hindsight 'I know I shouldn't but I want it so badly' is gorgeously sung atop a piano and brushstroke drumbeat of the type that has become the ultimate cliche on adult contempo radio by this point. But back then, it wasn't anything more than a really great revival of Carole King's best moments. But it's a bit deeper than that even.

'Frozen Charlotte,' —worthy of its own analytical post on its own— to me, is one of the most amazingly poignant and beautifully heartbroken songs ever written. It's the sort of song where you can just feel the emotional weight pulling down on the musicians as they play it. It's completely unclear to me what it's about. An indefinite departure or perhaps even death itself; it doesn't really matter. It's the sort of deeply meaningful and perfectly articulated song you hear and just know that it will only get better and more beautiful and profound with each passing listen. Probably Natalie's best song, Maniacs or otherwise.

Of its eleven tracks, not one rises above the seeming super fast tempo of 'Kind and Generous' (which can now perhaps be viewed as one of the most misleading singles in pop music history). Indeed, nothing here is as it appears, as on one track in the latter half of the album, Natalie declares herself to be "an effigy, a parody of who I appear to be." Only to conclude, "Put your flaming torches under me."

But, on the very next tune: "I don't care to stay with the living. No, I don't care to stay."

What in the world is going here?

A rootsy little tune that can now be looked at as her first proper foray into folksiness ('When They Ring the Golden Bells') and a passionate symphonic reprise of the title track (as a hidden track) and then it's all over.

So, here's some images from the album liners (make of them what you will):

Speaking through characters or not, Ophelia is NatMer's big artistic difficult second album triumph. The sort of which I seem to love. She was so bummed on this material, the live album documenting its tour only featured one song from the proper album (and not even the hit!).

Of course, I've grown to love this album and it has become easily my favorite NatMer album. Considering her direction into what has been a glorified research into perceived 'simpler' musical times ever since this album, I can't help but think it was the document of a personal experience so painful and personal that she has avoided anything of the sort ever since then, in an attempt at recapturing emotional innocence.

Hard to conjure a smile even this big for a seal of approval for an album that is so perpetually heart wrenching, but the appreciation comes with age.

Here's to hoping we get a sequel to the best one day.

Because it is her best.


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