Friday, May 16, 2014

Life is Sweet (and goodbye)

Over the years, I’ve told you a few stories about how I came to be a fan of Natalie Merchant’s music. How when I was a kid I thought she was terrible (still makes me cringe to type those words.) How seeing Natalie in concert for the first time in 2001 turned me into the kind of dedicated fan that, you know…writes this blog. But I’ve never told you about the gap between these two events. If I disliked her so much as a youngster, how did I end up at her concert anyways?

The answer is a song called Life Is Sweet.

I first heard this song playing on the radio in my 1985 Toyota Corolla while I was driving to work. I was 18 years old. My first instinct was to turn to another station, but I was too lazy. And, also, there was something in the music that got my attention. After the song was over, I thought, “That was a pretty good song, actually.” As in, “That was a pretty good song for Natalie Merchant.” (Yep, still cringing.)

It took awhile, but eventually I heard the song again. After that I knew that it wasn’t a pretty good song – it was a great song. I needed to own it. But I proceeded cautiously. I wasn’t jumping on a bandwagon just yet. I went on the interwebs and ordered the cheapest used copy of Ophelia I could find. Yeah, super committed, right? I think it cost like $8 and was purchased from a website called CD Universe. It came alone in a manila envelope – just the disc, no case, no liner notes. My first open-minded introduction to Natalie Merchant came with a picture of her in a short blond wig posing with a hula hoop. Shrug.

I listened to that disc a lot. Mostly I listened to Life Is Sweet, over and over and over again. I started to talk to a friend of mine about Natalie Merchant. She was more of a fan than I was, so a couple of years later when we had the opportunity to see Natalie in concert, we took it.

And here we are.

I’ve said before that I think Motherland is Natalie’s best song. But Life Is Sweet is and will always be my favorite Natalie Merchant song. Everything that has attracted me to Natalie’s music – both sonically and lyrically – is perfectly encapsulated in this song. If Natalie’s greatest hope for her music is that it would be a source of comfort to others (and from the numerous quotes from Natalie I’ve posted on this blog over the years, I think that presumption is a safe bet), then this song surely must be the pinnacle of her achievements.

True comfort comes, not from hollow platitudes, but from commiseration coupled with hope. The lyrics of Life Is Sweet tackle the kind of long-standing hurts that nearly every human being finds relatable. But the way they achieve this is fascinating to me. By using lyrics that are very specific but at the same time somewhat obscure, the end result is a song that feels entirely universal.

You wanna stay little daddy's girl
Wanna hide from the vicious world outside
Your daddy he's the iron man
A battleship wrecked on dry land
Your mama she's a bitter bride
She'll never be satisfied
Your daddy the war machine and
Your mama the long and suffering
Prisoner of what she can not see
Something tells me that nearly every person who hears this song will find some way in which these words feel terribly true to them. But I’m guessing if we all compared our reasons why, the answers would be all over the board. And maybe entirely too difficult to put into words. But it does ring so true, doesn’t it?

And, of course, the opening words to the song would be enough to do in any 18 year old (or 32 year old *ahem*):

It's a pity
It's a crying shame
Who pulled you down again?
How painful it must be
To bruise so easily inside
It makes me wonder, if I heard this song for the first time tomorrow, would it mean the same to me? I don’t know the answer. I hope it would. But there is something in these words that seems so undeniably meant to be heard during those years in life where everything is just so confusing and downheartening. I don’t bruise as easy I used to. I’m thankful for that. But I won’t forget what it felt like. I’m glad Natalie Merchant didn’t forget either.

Life Is Sweet is no pity party, though. Natalie has always been a bit bossy in her lyrics (and in her live performances.) Some people see this as off-putting. Me? Not so much. I love this about her. Maybe we are drawn to Natalie’s music because she sort of seems like the perfect parent? (Paging Dr. Freud.) No, really, I mean it. When you fall and hurt yourself or when some other kid hurts your feelings, you want consolation first, but then, ultimately, you want someone to tell you when it’s time to stop crying, when it’s time to toughen up.

It's high time you decide
It's time you make up your own sweet little mind

They told you life is long
Be thankful when it's done
Don't ask for more
You should be grateful

I know some of you will be sad to read this last post on this blog. I’m feeling pretty sad writing it. But I’m thankful that it’s done, and I won’t ask for more. And for all of you that have read faithfully over the years, and written me so many kind words of praise, commiseration, and encouragement, I am truly, truly grateful.

Years ago, I listened to a segment on the show All Songs Considered where the two hosts were talking about breaking up with beloved bands – what led them to the brink, what pushed them over the brink, how sometimes they ended up getting back together after many years. Since I’ve always had a somewhat romantic notion of my relationship to music, and particularly to musicians and bands I really love, this kind of analogy really spoke to me. One of the hosts, though, said that there was one particular musician that he would never break up with, no matter what happened. Even if he put out a terrible record, or even a bunch of terrible records. Then he said something that hit me so strongly that I always knew I would include it in this last post. He said: “To me, it sort of goes beyond friends. He has gained my trust so much that he almost feels like family.”
Yep. That’s exactly how I feel about Natalie Merchant’s music. It’s so much a part of my life that…well, for once, words fail me. So maybe I should let Natalie have the last word:
“The little place I carved out for myself is such an emotional place for so many people, and that makes me feel good that I've made something that's so useful.”*
I couldn’t have said it better myself.

*Broward Palm Beach New Times - August 2010

So…you’re still here, huh?

Well, as I mentioned on my last post, even though the Natalie Merchant Compendium Blog is coming to an end, I have another project to tell you about. I’ve started a new blog about music – one called Annie’s Music-y Thoughts (I might change the name at some point, that’s the best I could do for now.) This blog is going to be about random songs I love. You never know, future Natalie Merchant songs could end up on that blog too! As of yet, I haven’t posted anything on this blog, but it’s gonna happen – and soon.

Lastly, with regard to this blog, I will continue to check for and respond to comments and emails to the address. I also have an email set up for my other  blog – I’m still always interested in hearing your thoughts on these songs. Write me anytime.

You guys…thanks again. So much. This has been more fun and more rewarding than you can know.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Compendium in a Compendium

And now for something completely different…

I’ve never thought of myself as much of a procrastinator. But as the few of you left who consistently check this blog for new content have realized by now, I’m not exactly prolific in my output these days. There are a lot of reasons for this, but instead of dwelling on these boring details I’ll instead tell you what the plan is to wrap up this blog in a grand old fashion (grand-ish.) 

Yes, I said wrap up this blog. That was always the plan. I said when I started this blog over three years ago that I was planning on talking about every Natalie Merchant song (with a few exceptions, like B-sides, most covers, etc.) then released. As you may have heard, Natalie has a new album coming out next month. I’m thrilled about this. But I do not plan to add the new songs to the songs I cover on this blog. I’ve moved on. (It’s not her, it’s me.) That being said, I do want to carry this thing across the finish line that I set for it.

The problem is, of course, I still have quite a few songs left to cover. Eighteen songs to be exact. The idea that I have this many songs to cover has kept me stagnant for awhile. So I decided to try something different. Instead of my usual long, drawn-out takes on two or three songs per post, I’m going to sit here and listen to seventeen of the eighteen songs left and shotgun my thoughts on them as I listen. This will leave one last song to talk about and that will be my next and concluding post on this blog. 

Will this be satisfying to those of you who still (STILL!) are faithful readers, still email me, still prod me along in my long absences from the keyboard? I’m not sure. Probably not as satisfying as you would have hoped. I’m sorry about that. I’ve greatly appreciated your support over the years and I don’t take it for granted. But this might be the only way I can finish this long and daunting project I started and it still means something to me to try to finish it in some fashion. I hope it will mean something to you.

Now, then…Time to settle in and get cozy. We’ve got seventeen songs to talk about.

The Big Parade (Blind Man’s Zoo)

I think this is a less well-known but really beloved 10,000 Maniacs song for a lot of fans. It’s really pretty. I like a lot of different lyric-writing styles. Natalie has always been in the category of writers who paints a very vivid picture of a specific situation or, more commonly, a specific person. This song is no exception. It’s impossible not to conjure a visual image of the story she’s telling here. Maybe that’s how everyone else always experiences lyrics, but it isn’t necessarily always true for me. Unless I’m listening to Natalie…

A quote from Natalie about Blind Man’s Zoo:

"I had in my mind this feeling that there should be a consistency between all the songs, that there should be some kind of thematic unity. And the songs that I liked the most were the ones that were heavier, more powerful lyrically and musically and, I'd say, darker than the others.” - Rolling Stone, June 1989

The Blind Men and the Elephant (Leave Your Sleep)

Ah man, I love this song! It’s funny listening to a song from Blind Man’s Zoo and then Leave Your Sleep right after. Natalie’s voice is so different now, naturally. So much better. 

I’m always down for a good parable and this poem certainly fits the bill. Humor matched with a little bit of sting in the tail. Great backing vocals by the Fairfield Four and the Ditty Bops too.
"I've always done what I wanted to do and hoped if it pleased me, it would please other people. I've found these stories interesting ... there's a closeted musicologist aspect to my personality, and this gave me a chance to exercise those muscles -- the ethnomusicologist and the research librarian and to collaborate with people who are really out of my sphere musically."
-, August 2010

Can’t Ignore the Train (The Wishing Chair)

When I first started this blog, I’d never listened to The Wishing Chair. I decided to say I would include the songs because I knew a lot of fans would be interested in reading about those songs. But the truth is, I never really connected to that album. There are a few greats tracks, a few good ones, and some really bad ones. Ultimately, when it comes to first albums from a new band or artist, nostalgia is usually a key factor in being able to continue to enjoy them years later. If I’d listened to The Wishing Chair when it was newer, or just when I was much younger, I’m sure these songs would’ve meant more to me. Still, I don’t regret covering them. The handful of gems made it worthwhile. 

Can’t Ignore the Train has a couple lyrics I love, especially this one:

patience their virtue
but I never could abide by that

Carnival (Tigerlily)

What?! Really?! I’ve never written about Carnival?! How did that happen? Who’s running this blog, anyways? Well, I guess there is one very good reason I’ve never written about Carnival – I don’t love it. That isn’t to say I hate it. I don’t at all. I like it. It has some great guitar parts. The rhythm section is totally sick. And the lyrics are so smart. So why is it again I don’t love it? Oh, I don’t know. It’s like going on a date with a guy that is super smart, handsome, kind, and, you know…normal. It’s the normal part that kills the chance for future dates. I need something more than normal. There’s gotta be spark, you know? And for me and Carnival, we’ve always liked each other, but there just isn’t any spark between us. We can be friends, though, Carnival. I’ll see you around, anyways. I’ll enjoy you every time Natalie performs you live. But just not as much as…most of her other songs.

Hey Jack Kerouac (In My Tribe)

What?! Really?! I’ve never written about Hey Jack Kerouac?! Okay, this case is entirely different. I love the guts out of this song. I love everything about it. I love the disco-like bass line and the snarky lyrics. I think these are some of the best lyrics Natalie has ever written, actually. And in addition to Carnival and Wonder, this is the only song I’ve seen Natalie perform every single time I’ve seen her play live. It’s still great. And I think it’s amazing that she can stand on a stage 25+ years after she wrote these words and still, rightfully, take pride and pleasure in them. Even back then she was a truly special lyricist.

He chose his words from mouths of
Babes got lost in the world
Hip flask slingin' madmen
Steamin' cafe flirts
They all spoke through you

Is it weird that these lyrics make me so happy I kind of want to punch the air? Yes? Okay, well then, I won’t say anymore about it.

Speaking of snark, though, what about this line about Allen Ginsberg?

Allen baby, why so jaded?
Have the boys all grown up
And their beauty faded?

I wonder if she’d live to regret those words…(Spoiler alert: sort of. Keep reading.)

I May Know the Word (Tigerlily)

My least favorite song on Tigerlily. Man, what a downer I’m being on this amazing album. Again, I don’t hate this song. I just don’t find it particularly resonant. I think this must be entirely due to the music which is just too plodding and uninteresting to me. The lyrics are completely beautiful and if I’m honest, a bit conscience-piercing. 

I may know the way
To comfort and to soothe
A worried face
But fold my hands

I’ve been guilty of this more times than I’d like to admit to or recount. 

A quote from Natalie:

“That was the first song I wrote after leaving 10,000 Maniacs. I pretty much wrote it the day after. I sort of rushed into it because Jonathan Demme had called and wanted a new song for the
Philadelphia soundtrack. I thought that would be a great transition. And I'd always wanted to do a soundtrack record, to make a contribution of some sort. So I finished the song and I was really happy with it. Elektra was my record company at the time, and Bob Krasnow advised against it. And I think I can understand why now. But he just thought that it might not be the best decision and wanted to save my big moment for the record, Tigerlily. But at least it got me to write the song. It's a lot about indecisiveness and being prevented from doing what you feel is and know is right. But something else prevents you from doing it and you don't even know what it is.” - The Performing Songwriter, May/June 1996

I Saw a Ship A-Sailing (Leave Your Sleep)

I’ve always thought this song was really pretty. I love this entire album and I do feel like musically it’s Natalie’s best work. The music is a little melancholy for the words, I suppose. But maybe that’s fitting for a lullaby? A simple song, beautifully so. I’m getting a little sleepy…

King of May

So about that Allen Ginsberg thing…

I only know what Natalie once talked about between songs at a concert she performed a few years back in Oakland, CA. Some years after writing Hey Jack Kerouac, she ended up meeting and becoming friends with Allen Ginsberg, who apparently chided her initially about the low blow in the lyrics. She remarked on her youthful hubris and blamed the lyric on the fact that it rhymed so well. She stills sings it…because it’s still a great line. And she knows it.

After Ginsberg’s death, Natalie wrote King of May in tribute to him. After telling this story at the concert, she launched into a short, unplanned version of this song. It was a beautiful, spontaneous moment, the kind I’ve come to expect from a Natalie concert. She is, and will always be, my favorite live performer. I can’t wait to see her again soon. And then again and again. As long as she performs, I will buy a ticket over and over and over again.

Lilydale (The Wishing Chair)

I think this is another beloved-if-not-famous 10,000 Maniacs song. I think the melody is very pretty. At the same time, the lyrics are so…teenager. You know how every teenager goes through that hang-out-at-the-cemetery phase. Right? Or was that just me? Again, this song would probably be really special to me if I’d actually heard it as a teenager. As a thirtysomething? It’s sweet. Just sweet.

"Half that album was very nostalgic lyrically. I have to consider that some of the lyrics were written when I was 16-years-old. How can you really know your literary voice at 16? I think I was doing more borrowing then, as I hadn't experienced enough."
- Music Express, July 1989

My Sister Rose
(In My Tribe)

This song is ridiculous. So silly. A musical version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with Greeks swapped out for Italians. (In the same wheelhouse, though, no?) A groom named Rocky. Cha cha. Mambo. This song just sounds like a bunch of kids goofing around.

Oh, also, I love it.

What of it? I never claimed to be high-brow…

Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience (Leave Your Sleep)

Oh, this one hurts a little. I’d always planned a very particular blog post about this song. The emotions in this song, from the very first time I heard it, recalled a very specific moment in my childhood. I guess I never wrote about it because I never really saw a way to weave my experience into a song that is essentially about war and its effects on a child without sounding seriously over-dramatic. I’ll just say that this song has a very special place in my heart.

I love how Natalie pronounces the word “sword” with a hard w. I’ve never heard an American pronounce it that way. Do you think she does it on purpose since the poem was written by an English poet? Or do you think that’s the way she always says “sword”? One way or another, it’s really winning.

"I wanted to look at poetry that addressed the loss of innocence," she says. "I was making an album for [my daughter] and her childhood in several ways, but I was also making a piece of work about childhood. It would appeal to everyone, because everyone's been a child. And you navigate the waters of childhood with whatever boat we have."
- Spinner, July 2010

Poison In the Well
(Blind Man’s Zoo)

You know what’s great about this song? Me neither.

If forced to rank my favorite Natalie songs, this one would be near the bottom. It’s musically boring and the lyrics are just too specific.

“The direction I've been going in since the
Blind Man's Zoo album is more personal writing, trying to touch on topics that are universal rather than specific, trying to write emotional music on topics people can identify with.” - The Scotsman, July 19, 1995

With some music on Blind Man’s Zoo, I think Natalie absolutely met the above objective, especially with songs like Dust Bowl, Eat For Two, or Trouble Me. But this song is not universal. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a person who lacks empathy. It’s not that I’m callous to the plight of the people Natalie is singing about in this song. I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a Natalie song, but I think this song would’ve benefited from a stronger central character.

And, of course, I’m qualified to make these sweeping critiques because I am an amazing and accomplished lyricist myself…*ahem*

I feel the need to say, not for the first time, that the worst song Natalie writes would be a million times better than anything I could ever hope to accomplish.

I started off this blog thinking I really liked Blind Man’s Zoo, but as I’ve written about it more in-depth I have to admit my appreciation for it has really waned. A few masterpieces, and a few more shrugs.

The Walloping Window Blind
(Leave Your Sleep)

This song is kind of bonkers. I can’t help but think these are the kind of lyrics that only a very sophisticated child would find amusing. One way or another the music is great and the way Natalie sings is really fun. I love the “Heave Ho”s!

Which Side Are You On (The House Carpenter's Daughter)

One of the traps that I laid for myself while writing this blog was a tendency to put off writing about songs for which I just didn’t have anything to say. I don’t dislike them necessarily. I might even like them a lot. I just don’t have anything to say about them. The problem, of course, was setting myself up to talk about every song. Even though I wouldn’t necessarily say that I regret the format I chose for writing this blog, I would definitely never do something exactly like this again. Because, basically, if you don’t have anything interesting that naturally springs to mind to say about something, you should really, really not be writing about it.

So I will now write something about Which Side Are You On

I like it.

I love whenever Natalie sings angry - that little growl she gets in her voice. I think of all of Natalie’s work, from 10,000 Maniacs through Leave Your Sleep, her voice is at its very best on House Carpenter’s Daughter. I really love this album so much. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Natalie about this album:

"In a way, folk music itself is the house carpenter’s daughter, the little baby that’s left behind and neglected. It’s loved by whoever takes the time and has the sensitivity to see that it’s there. Because for so many people, traditional folk music is just abandoned. It’s lost. And for some good reasons, because I think a lot of people have interpreted it and have really sterilized it. Made it less interesting.”
- Chautauqua Region Word, June 2011

Scorpio Rising
(The Wishing Chair)

Amaze me now.

Audacity is all a matter of context. And opinion. Sometimes we use that word with disdain and disapproval. But sometimes we use it as a form of high praise. Amaze me now – those three words are full of youthful audacity and hubris. Maybe I appreciate it only because I know the kind of artist she turned out to be later on, but I really love the audacious little girl who sang these words. I can’t help but feel pride in that girl who, as it turned out, would never fail to treat us to an honest face. But, I’ll allow Natalie to have her say:

"I cannot, at 45, still see myself singing Scorpio Rising. I can see myself living in a trailer with five children a lot easier than that!" - Music Express, July 1989

Her powers of prediction were sharp. As far as I know, neither of these things has happened in Natalie’s life. But there’s always time, right?

This House Is On Fire (Motherland)

I’ve told the story before on the blog that the first time I really fell in love with Natalie’s music was during a concert she played while promoting Motherland. I will always remember hearing this song played that night. It was so powerful and commanded full attention. She played it again with a symphony orchestra when I saw her perform last year. That was even better. It’s just a song that works incredibly well live.

Motherland is an album that never matched the popularity of Tigerlily or Ophelia and that’s a shame. Some of Natalie’s best work is on this album. This song is a standout on Motherland, and that’s really saying something.

By the way, I love love love these lines:

There's a wild fire catching in the whip of the wind
That could start a conflagration
Like there has never been

Seven Years

Appropriate choice for my last song on this post, since it’s taken me roughly seven years to write it. (Cue rim shot.)

Before we talk about this last song I’ll ever write about from Tigerlily, let’s take a trip back in time to 1993, shortly after news broke that Natalie would be leaving 10,000 Maniacs and venturing out on her own. A certain Marty Boratin, of New World Record in Buffalo, was asked for his opinion on Natalie’s chances of success as a solo artist. Here’s what he had to say:

"I think Natalie will have a serious career slump. I always thought that John Lombardo was the person who really made that band. I never bought the idea that she was the driving force behind the Maniacs."
- Buffalo News, August 1993

One can only hope he never left his day job for a career in prognostication.

Here’s what Natalie had to say before the album came out:

"That the first LP will define me is something I'm very aware of. I've been in a band so long, and my contribution has been masked so no one knows what I did or didn't do. And I've seen so many solo artists embarrass themselves, proving that their talent was as a link, a team member, not as an individual standing alone. It feels challenging and frightening, liberating, all those things."
- Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 1993

I don’t need to tell you that things worked out for her. And she was right about the stakes for that first solo record. I wouldn’t likely be writing this blog if Tigerlily hadn’t been what it was – not because it’s my personal favorite but because it was good enough to pave the way for a long and fruitful solo career.

Seven Years
works some of the most frequently covered territory in all music – betrayal. There’s a reason so many songs are written on this subject. Who can’t relate? And that is really the hallmark of Natalie’s writing. At her best, she writes about universal topics, things that any person can understand and appreciate. I know people who felt this song really described their feelings after putting years of work into a romantic relationship and then seeing it fall apart. Natalie has said this song was not written about a romantic partner but about a teacher. I think it could easily be about a parent. Natalie writes lyrics in a way that allows the listener to superimpose themselves into the song, make it personal. That’s why I’m writing this blog, that’s why you’re reading it right now.

But all good things must come to their end.

I’ve left one last song to discuss on this blog. (100 points to anyone who can email me with the name of the song!) It’s my favorite Natalie song of all time and the song I always knew I’d save for my very last post. It’s bittersweet to be approaching that milestone (tombstone?), but I’m also very excited to complete this little project and to tell you about what I’ve got lined up next.

I promise there won’t be a long delay between this post and the next one, so do check back very soon.

Until (one last) next time… 

P.S. - Go pre-order Natalie's new album!