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Mother of Reinvention

 

Natalie Merchant: Motherland

Elektra, 2001

Rating: 3.6

 

 

Posted: November 15, 2001

By Laurence Station

Natalie Merchant's third studio album, Motherland, marries the lyrical and thematic eclecticism of Tigerlily, her 1995 debut, with the larger sonic palette evident on her 1998 sophomore effort, Ophelia. The result is her most accomplished, if uneven, effort to date.

In Merchant's admirable, if daunting, quest to explore tones as diverse as Arabic-tinged strings and flutes ("This House Is on Fire") and orchestral chamber pieces ("The Ballad of Henry Darger," "The Worst Thing") she sacrifices any hope of achieving a musical sense of unity, settling instead for a sprawling, fragmented patchwork devoid of a definable center.

Lyrically, like most of Merchant's work, Motherland wrestles with issues both personal ("I'm Not Gonna Beg") and political ("Motherland"). "Tell Yourself" manages to integrate the words and music most effectively, with piano, organ and acoustic guitar seamlessly backing the cleverly phrased, pointedly feminist barb: "Ever since Eden we're built for pleasing everyone knows/And ever since Adam cracked his rib and let us go I know/Oh yes I know what you tell yourself/You tell yourself."

The highlight of the album comes in the form of Gospel music heavyweight Mavis Staples, who contributes vocals on two R&B-flavored songs ("Saint Judas" and "Build a Levee"), and the results are truly outstanding. One can't help but speculate what might have come from a release comprised entirely of such expertly executed material.

On the downside, the radio-friendly, yet ordinary, "Just Can't Last" would have been at home on either of Merchant's previous two efforts, while "Golden Boy" grates with an unsubtle condemnation of the media's fascination/star-making focus on high school-aged mass murderers.

Motherland glitters with some of the finest, most inventive tracks Natalie Merchant has ever recorded, yet lacks thematic consistency and struggles too hard to find its musical identity, rendering it one of the most engaging, yet frustrating works by a major artist this year. With her willingness to explore new musical landscapes, however, there's little doubt that Merchant's future endeavors will still demand close scrutiny.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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