The Essentials: Motherland by Natalie Merchant

The morning of Sept. 12th, 2001, a Wednesday, I rolled out of bed filled with a dread shared by many. Yet some routines never change: I still made and drank my coffee, still communed with the cat, and still hopped online for a spell. When I left for work a little before 9am, the radio stayed tuned to KYW-1060AM—an all-news station—longer than the latest weather and traffic reports. All news, all the time, was already an occasional companion on my 35-minute commute to work prior to 9/11, but in its aftermath it was a constant.

I start there because, as I’ve noted before, music is neither made nor experienced in a vacuum. Add to that this: That fall of ’01, for my age (36) and tastes, the same-old, same-old, served up by the classic rock and the oldies stations bored me to tears, as they featured the same songs over and over and over again, while so-called “modern rock” was rife with recycled riffs and beats that came across like the bleats of mindless sheep, and CHR radio annoyed me even more. I did push play on my CD player on occasion, as my new-to-me Dodge Neon came equipped with one, but rare was it for the album to be a new release. Aside from Alicia KeysSongs in A Minor, which Diane gave me as a gift thinking I might like it (and I did), I can’t think of a new album of all-new material that I played with regularity either in the car or our home that year…until that November, that is.

Paul McCartney’s Driving Rain and Natalie Merchant’s Motherland, both released on November 13th in the States, helped refocus me. I’ll save the former for another post. As for the latter? It went onto become my Album of the Year. Produced by Natalie and T Bone Burnett, it features a folky vibe that integrates Middle Eastern, R&B and pop flourishes into a dense, but never cluttered soundscape. At the time, she explained to Mark Brown of the Scripps-McClatchy Western Service that she was inspired, in part, by her 2000 folk music tour. “I really found the simplicity of those songs appealing. I’ve always loved traditional music, but before last summer, I focused more on traditional music from Ireland and England.”

Although recording wrapped days prior to the attacks, the opening “This House on Fire”—which mixes reggae with a Middle Eastern sound—seems to contradict her lyrical claim that “I don’t have the gift of prophecy” when she predicts that “soon come the day this tinderbox/is gonna blow in your face” and “it’s all gonna catch like a house on fire/spark an evil blaze and burn higher.” But, of course, she was talking metaphorically—not about the Middle East or terror attacks in general, but the 2000 election.

The title track began life as a cynical ode of city vs. country life and corporate greed, but comes across with its cynicism toned down. She explained to Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that, in its earliest version, it was “live, raucous” and “kinda beer-hall,” but that Burnett helped change it “from being kind of sardonic to being extremely genuine and very sweet-sounding, plaintive.” The legendary Van Dyke Parks plays accordion on the recording, by the way.

The taut “Saint Judas” was inspired by a photography exhibit on lynching and features Mavis Staples on backing vocals. “Put the Law on You,” which is something of a companion piece to the classic “I Put a Spell on You,” continues the R&B feel and also features Staples. “Build a Levee” expands upon the soul groove while imparting apt advice for life: steel yourself for when the devil tempts you. (There’s more to it than that, of course.)

“Golden Boy,” she told Brown, was inspired by “this obsession that we seem to have with guys with guns. There used to be a moral tale in a film, and victory would belong to the virtuous side. I find this moral ambivalence (in modern films) really repugnant. You learn so much as a culture from the tales you tell.”

“The Ballad of Henry Darger,” on the other hand, takes inspiration from notoriety of a different stripe. The real-life Darger, who worked as a hospital custodian, gained a semblance of fame following his 1973 death when his unfinished 15,145-page fantasy manuscript was discovered among his possessions. “The Worst Thing,” meanwhile, finds a wounded Natalie warning another about the danger of falling in love. 

Advice is also given in “Tell Yourself,” but this time to a young teen about body image. It echoes the folky pop of the 10,000 Maniacs to an extent. The same is true for “Just Can’t Last,” which was the first single. It offers encouragement to those who seemingly carry the weight of the world on their backs. “Not in This Life,” the penultimate song, may well be the album’s piece de resistance.

In a self-reflective yet declarative mood, she vows to never be taken again. It could be about a relationship gone wrong, about her career, a compromise she made, any number of things, but that matters less than her resolve—and the lyrical guitar that’s (presumably) played by Greg Leisz. The R&B-flavored “I’m Not Gonna Beg” closes the 12-song set in fine fashion.

All in all, it’s a perfect album. As she told Ed Condran of the Asbury Park Press a few days before its release, “The album is like a cubist painting. There are so many perspectives to it. It’s the kind of album that can be played many times.” Truer words never spoken.

The track list:

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