Natalie Merchant -- blues singer? Maybe it's a little premature for that kind of label, but for those who remember Merchant solely as the socially conscious lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, her latest project, Motherland, might be a bit of a surprise. For the first time on record, she tries her hand at the blues -- among other things.
"Although I've always had a passion for rhythm and blues and gospel music, I've been reluctant to make obvious references to these styles in my own writing," Merchant says, "but with Motherland I felt it was time to fess up and acknowledge some of my teachers."
That's not to say that Motherland is a complete departure. During her 13 years with 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant gained a reputation for writing bouncy songs that always seemed to contain a political message -- tackling topics like child abuse, illiteracy, alcoholism, water pollution, and teen pregnancy -- which earned her the nickname "the Emily Dickinson of pop." And while anyone who has seen her perform live knows that she's more than capable of loosening up -- what with all her barefoot dancing and hip-swinging -- it's safe to say that the poetry and sentimentality she's known for are still there. Motherland's title track is a beautifully lilting ballad, and there are a few of the politically charged songs for which Merchant has become famous.
Still, the album manages to break some new ground. Among the other surprises on the disc: The song "The Worst Thing" features Spanish guitar accompaniment, as well as Merchant singing some Spanish lyrics. ("I spent three months traveling through Spain last year, and the influence was hard to resist," she says.)
If there is a recurring theme in Motherland, though, it may be the result of Merchant's bitter breakup with her longtime companion Peter Yanowitz two years ago. She won't say much about the split publicly, but it's hard to mistake the pain in some of her lyrics. From songs like "I'm Not Gonna Beg" ("I'm not gonna beg you for nothing/I'm not gonna beg you for your love"), to "Not in This Life" ("Never again, not in this life, will I be taken twice"), and "Put the Law on You" ("You're just about the lowest and the dirtiest thing I've ever seen"), Motherland appears to be one of the most personal albums Merchant has ever written.
The timing of the album is also significant. Merchant, who has an apartment in New York City, finished recording the album on September 9, two days before the terrorist attacks. She acknowledges that some songs on Motherland might take on new meaning in light of the tragedies. "I was far more cynical when I wrote 'Motherland,'" she says. "Now the song is a desperate plea for innocence. . . . Suddenly, there seems to be no hiding from our past as a nation, or our present, or our future. For me it's the death of nostalgia and dreams."