Lists. When it comes to music, they can be cliched, maddening and illuminating – often all at once. The Beatles, Dylan, Stones and Nirvana are (as they should be) among the Usual Suspects lauded in most Greatest Albums countdowns, but alongside them are always a slew of titles that leave you scratching your head. Sometimes it seems the editors choose the titles by tossing Nerf darts at their CD collections.
In December 2019, when folks create lists of the best albums of the past decade, I doubt that Natalie Merchant’s recent eponymous album will make the final cut – unless, possibly, from one of those Nerf darts. Don’t get me wrong, It’s a very good album. “Go Down Moses,” for example, is simply phenomenal – about moving on after the death of a loved one – and conjures, of all things, the movie “20 Feet From Stardom” thanks to the sterling vocals of backup singer Corliss Stafford. “Seven Deadly Sins,” which follows, slowly builds into a lament about jealousy and “a bloody war to end all wars.” In fact, you can say that about most of the songs here – they build layer by layer, like Lincoln Logs, each piece in place before the next is dropped.
“Ladybird” is another example. It could well be an outtake from Ophelia; listen to it back-to-back with “Life Is Sweet” or “Break My Heart.” (That’s not a knock, just an observation.) It’s absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous, in other words, every note in place and decidedly… mid-tempo.
Mid-tempo is the fastest the album rocks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do miss the days of “Stockton Gala Days,” “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “Scorpio Rising,” when Natalie let loose her inner whirling dervish.