Mother Courage returns: Sylvie Simmons hails her new album. Natalie Merchant ★★★★ Keep Your Courage NONESUCH. CD/DL/LP
IT’S BEEN 30 years since Merchant announced on MTV that she was quitting 10,000 Maniacs to go it alone. She’d had it, she said, with “art by committee. I didn’t want to have to consult with all these other people.” She kept her word. Since Tigerlily (1995), her five-times platinum solo debut, she’s led one of the most individualistic careers of any artist of her standing. Her subsequent work has encompassed Shakespearean sonnets, children’s stories, politics, the poems of Robert Graves, indie pop and folk music, traditional, original and alternative, while her record releases seem unrelated to anyone’s schedule but her own. Keep Your Courage, Merchant’s ninth studio LP, is her first of all-new material in nine years. It’s also her most beautiful in decades.
Recorded in a studio in Vermont with Merchant as producer and Joan Of Arc as patron saint/cover girl, it has 10 songs, several five, six or seven minutes long but beguiling enough you wouldn’t complain if they were longer still. It’s densely musical. For the most part it’s a textured and nuanced blend of folk instrumentation and classical orchestration. There was orchestration on her last LP, BUTTERfly (2017) – new arrangements of largely old songs – but not as complex
and layered as here. Literally layered: the result of making an album with two dozen musicians and seven classical string arrangers when pandemic protocols dictated a maximum of five in the studio at a time. Along with her core band are members of Lankum and another Irish group, Lúnasa, a horn section, woodwind, backing vocalists and singer Abena Koomson-Davis, with whom Merchant duets on Come On, Aphrodite. Overall, it sounds cohesive, but varied too. And, given the epic cast, remarkably uncluttered, with its focus on the voice and the song.
Lyrically, the word “‘love’ recurs in these songs no less than 26 times if you listen start to finish,” Merchant writes in her linernotes. Like the arrangements, love appears in a variety of moods: there’s the childlike, reminiscing Sister Tilly, with its Chelsea girls and Beatles-y strings; the soulful gospel Tower Of Babel with horns and backing singers; and at its most heartbreakingly lovely, Narcissus, which ends with the repeated plea, “Will you let me take you home?”
Home was where Merchant wrote all 10 songs during a period of personal and global fear and isolation, her liners explain: “But this is not an album about the Coronavirus. xIt’s] a song cycle that maps the journey of a courageous heart”, through the toughest and most solitar y of times. As she sings over a slowly picked acoustic guitar in bleak-midwintry closer The Feast Of Saint Valentine, “Keep your courage, keep your faith. Love will set you free.”