“This house is on fire,” are the opening lyrics of Natalie Merchant”s newest album Motherland.
This song sets the serious and somewhat political tone, that listeners have come to expect from Merchant, on the album, which is due for release a week from tomorrow.
With Motherland, Merchant has shifted from self-production to working with pop veteran T. Bone Burnett. Burnett”s efforts with such successes as Elvis Costello and The Wallflowers have established him as a premier and much sought-after producer.
Merchant is a unique solo artist in that she has consistently focused her music around a core band that tours with her and appeared on her previous releases Ophelia and Tigerlily. However, with each new release, she continues to infuse new talent like Tori Amos” drummer Matt Chamberlain or gospel music legend Mavis Staples.
As a whole, Motherland has a very calculated and layered sound. Merchant is vocally at her best and her lines are filled with a richness and texture that she hasn”t achieved for a while. The production is excellent, as is the attention to the detail of traditional sound, which is re-enforced by use of banjo and accordion.
Although these generalizations can be made, the songs each have their own vibe. The first track, “This House Is On Fire,” is a reggae jaunt that is reminiscent of Merchant”s first album Hope Chest with her previous band, 10,000 Maniacs. The song, which Merchant explained was about the WTO protests, is laden with organ and chunky guitar.
The aura of the album abruptly changes with the self-titled track, which is equally political, but based in acoustic guitar and the feeling of traditional folk. The record continues to morph with banjo rock-out anthem “Saint Judas” and the cautionary spiritual “Build A Levee.”
Songs like these highlight Motherland, however, the undisputable best track is the haunting “Golden Boy.” The melody is sleepy and winding over buzzy background acoustic guitar and keyboard, as well as some excellent lead guitar work. The chorus is koan-like in the stark yet mystical repetition of “golden boy.” Merchant”s voice is deceptive and harbors aspects of Bjork in its pure simplicity.
“”Golden Boy” was a song I wrote without being absolutely certain of its meaning. During the recording the engineer commented that he couldn”t get the image of the infamous boys from Columbine out of his head. I suddenly realized that I was addressing the unhealthy tendency we have as a culture to fix our attention upon our deviant and violent outcasts,” explained Merchant.
Motherland does start with a bang, although the quality of the songs diminish somewhat on the second half of the album. The sleepy “Ballad of Henry Darger” is interesting in its fundamental ideal, but gets old quick. This song is followed by a few more throwaway tracks like the uninteresting and repetitive “Tell Yourself” and the over-produced “Not In This Life,” which seem to be folk-pop clichs more than anything else.
The first single, “Just Can”t Last,” holds up as poppy, fun and optimistic. However, again, one can”t help feeling like it”s a four-major-chord ditty that”s been done before. Not to mention, done before by Merchant, with her previous airplay darlings “These Are Days,” “Wonder,” “Kind and Generous” or “Life is Sweet.”
It would not be unfair to say that this is the best Merchant solo album yet. However, one must consider that even the well-meaning folk-pop goddess Merchant has her preachy and redundant flaws.