Caustic Chameleon

Natalie Merchant is not one to shy away from tackling life’s injustices, big or small. “Pasta is one of the great fallacies of our time,” she once said. “Two hundred different shapes, and they all taste the same.”

Merchant is best known as lead singer of the mid-’80s/early-’90s indie-rock darlings 10,000 Maniacs; she left the band some four years ago. “I felt I was expending too much effort in trying to participate by committee, when I really wanted to be a little tyrant and have my own way,” Merchant told a Los Angeles Times reporter in her inimitably candid style, explaining the breakup.

Merchant surfaced as a solo artist in 1995 with the release of Tigerlilly (Elektra), which produced the hit single “Jealousy.” Many Merchant fans lauded the sparse, starkly arranged Tigerlilly as a showcase for Merchant’s raw talent in its truest form: her famous, slightly off-kilter, silkily slurred vocals — undiluted by the heavy hooks and buoyantly aggressive orchestration that marked the quintessential 10,000 Maniacs sound. Some music critics failed to see Tigerlilly’s charm, however. Spin magazine reporter Elysa Gardner groused about the CD’s “prissy, chaste” lyrics and noted grumpily, “The solo Merchant folds lazy melodies into arrangements so prim and anemic that they’d put an adult-contemporary radio programmer to sleep.”

Ouch.

Then again, Merchant’s always been either deeply loved or wholeheartedly, well, disliked . Her distinctive-to-a-fault voice, swirling stage persona (i.e., she twirls around a heck of a lot), and fastidious political correctness (one music critic noted sardonically, “She’d never, for example, sing about leather — even metaphorically”) seldom elicit indifference.

Too, the singer is nothing if not a mass of contradictions: Pegged by some industry insiders as a prima donna, Merchant nonetheless took a year off from her wildly successful musical career in the early ’90s to work in a Harlem day-care center for homeless children.

After a stint co-headlining the popular, all-woman Lillith Fair music tour and recording songs for other artists’ CDs (most recently, The Chieftains’ Tears of Stone) Merchant has returned with a new solo release Ophelia (Elektra 1998). Gone are the stark renderings found on Tigerlilly. This lavish disc is marked by lush, opulent arrangements; layered harmonies; a horn section; and performances by more than 30 wildly disparate musicians — including Brand New Heavies vocalist N’Dea Davenport; Tibetan devotional singer Yunchen Llamo; Karen Peris of the Innocence Mission; so-called “psychedelic” guitarist Daniel Lanois; English composer Gavin Bryars; acoustic guitarist Lokua Kanza (a superstar in his native Zaire); and rising trumpet star Chris Botti.

“I wanted to approach the recording of Ophelia as a series of workshops,” Merchant explains. “Rather than using a band and rehearsing it, I hand-picked musicians for specific songs and invited them into the studio. There was a refreshing amount of freedom and spontaneity in this method.”

One glance at the CD cover — featuring the often oh-so-earthy Merchant slinkily draped on a divan wearing a midnight-blue silk robe, high heels and a gardenia in her hair — clues us in: This is not the Natalie Merchant who favors earnest ballads about child abuse, alcoholism and nuclear disarmament. Instead, Ophelia, in the title track alone, offers up a cast of characters that includes, as Merchant puts it, “a suffragette, a silent-film goddess, a Mafia courtesan and a female human cannonball.”

In fact, Merchant found the characters she created for “Ophelia” so rich — and so imbued with visual potential — that she enlisted directors Mark Seliger and Fred Woodward to produce a companion film of the same name (released only in certain selected cities for now), in which she plays all the roles. “There were such rich possibilities, both dramatic and comic, [for] a one-woman performance,” she notes, adding, “I love the opportunity to flex my Thespian muscles.” (On the other hand, she recently turned down the chance to play Mary Magdalene in the new Jesus Christ Superstar tour, preferring to play nearly 60 Lillith Fair dates instead.) In the film version of Ophelia, Merchant incorporates theater, music, dance and elaborate costumes to portray the song’s seven characters, each of whom speaks a different language.

After such a dramatic tour de force will Merchant’s next project perhaps be a more staid, Tigerlilly-like affair?

Judge for yourself. “I’m writing an epic poem and an opera about [a character called] Mr. Fancy Pants,” she told one reporter. “He lives in the presidential suite of the Palace Hotel and … is a dissolute, alcoholic, misogynist, misanthropic, billionaire recluse.”

Hmmm. Next thing you know, she’ll be singing about leather.

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