November 8, 2001

Art Over Image

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Natalie Merchant’s 2001 release Motherland picks up from where her sophomore album Ophelia left off, continuing to produce her signature style of simple songs with important social awareness messages in a soothing folk-pop backdrop. As with her previous album, Merchant goes beyond the boundaries of her folk sound by drawing from country, blues and even Latino genres. However, in an era where the listener’s attention span is getting shorter and demands a more flashy production, this album might be a little too mellow and slow-paced for today’s audiences.

Merchant is a veteran participant of the bygone tour known as Lilith Fair, a group that celebrated empowerment and supportive female camaraderie among diverse artists that included Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple and Missy Elliott. The Lilith performers were marketable for all the right reasons — audiences were drawn to their skill and work, not to their body image, contrary to their current trend of appearances over art. Merchant carries on the Lilith tradition on Motherland. Instead of succumbing to marketing her appearance or catering to more heavily produced pop sounds, she chooses instead to maintain her integrity and share her personal thoughts on everything from love to societal injustice in simple, intimate surroundings.

Motherland opens up with a rather interesting track called “This House is on Fire,” in which she fuses exotic Middle Eastern sounds layered with laid back reggae beats. She then deviates into more of a country direction, incorporating blues-y twang and the vocals of soul singer Mavis Staples to give it an authentic deep Southern feel. This country/R&B interlude, however, is the album’s weakness. She does vary it a bit by enhancing some songs with electronic instrumentals, but the 4 song stretch, although having important things to say, is tedious and sleep-inducing.

Merchant then grabs our interest again by shifting the next songs into a more exciting and dramatic direction. The use of Spanish rhythm, romantic orchestral arrangements, and even quaint baroque sounds evoke the experience of a sweeping movie musical score. “Henry Darger” is one of the best tracks, using elegant harp and string accompaniment as well as her quavery voice to re-create the enigmatic subject matter of an artist’s incomprehensible paintings. “The Worst Thing,” on which she warns about the fleeting happiness of romance, has a very sensual and tragic feel.

The album then concludes with a return to her more familiar and popular folk melodies. “I’m Not Gonna Beg,” the best of this set and the last track, successfully relies on a more minimalist musical accompaniment of simplistic piano and drums to underscore her gentle voice and the very personal narrative, which again deals with the pangs of love. People who do not mind a more subdued musical style will come away from Motherland feeling very drawn to Merchant’s earnest and endearing sincerity.

Archived article by Sherry Jun