First Impressions: Keep Your Courage by Natalie Merchant

Some days it seems as if curve balls, sinkers and speedballs fly at us while we stand frozen in the batter’s box, unsure of whether to swing or leave it for the umpire to make his or her call. It’s better to take your best shot, I think, to give it what you got. Sometimes, sure, you’ll swing through the pitch. But other times you may well smack the ball through a gap in the infield—or even over the centerfield fence. 

Which leads to this: Natalie Merchant’s first new album in nine years, Keep Your Courage, will be heard as a home run by most longtime fans. It integrates orchestral, folk and pop elements into delectable compounds, with several of those tracks conjuring her past collaborations with N’Dea Davenport (“Break Your Heart”) and Corliss Stafford (“Go Down, Moses”). 

This time out, the collaborator is Abena Koomson-Davis of the Resistance Revival Chorus. Her warm vocals buttress the opening “Big Girls,” which delves into the delicate dance of self-deception regarding life’s setbacks, and “Come on, Aphrodite,” in which she and Natalie implore the Greek goddess of love to rise up from the sea and do her thing: “Make me head over heels, make me drunk, make me blind/Over the moon, half out of my mind/Oh, make me weak in the knees, tremble inside/Give up easy and swallow my pride/Oh, make me, make me love.” A part of me wishes the album continued in the same vein, with the two trading lines and verses throughout. There’s magic when they do.

“Sister Tilly” balances the orchestral with the folk while paying tribute to first-wave feminists, many of whom are no longer with us. To my ears, it does gets a tad much when she sings of Tilly’s love of Zeppelin and strings swell to the foreground—a guitar solo would have worked better. But that’s me. “Narcissus” makes better use of those orchestral elements while delving into the ancient Greek myth about a boy who fell in love with his own reflection, though it likely would have sounded as good if it was just Natalie at the piano. “Hunting the Wren” is a cover of a song written by Ian Lynch of the Dublin band Lankum, which released their original rendition in 2019. Some may hear it as a dirge, others a drag. 

“Guardian Angel” questions the unseen hands guiding us, while “Eye of the Storm”—about a past lover, no doubt—sheds the symphony for a simple acoustic guitar, drums and penny whistle, rising ever-so-slowly like a lake on a rainy day but never overflowing the dam. It’s low-key, to be sure, and hypnotic. “Tower of Babel,” which in some respects describes America circa 2023 (“see this house is divided”) injects a brassy New Orleans vibe into the proceedings. It’s quite cool. “Song of Himself,” on the other hand, is a plaintive love letter to the poet Walt Whitman that’s accented by a restrained piano solo. The album comes to a close with “The Feast of Saint Valentine,” in which she places her faith in love.

All in all, Keep Your Courage is an excellent album—though, to return to my opening paragraph, more of a solid double than a smash into the centerfield bleachers. Aside from one or two intrusive instances, the orchestral elements don’t overwhelm the songs as they did on the 2015 Tigerlily re-do; rather, as on the Butterfly collection, they complement the lyrics and melodies.

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