Three years is a perfectly respectable amount of time to wait between projects, but the announcement that Natalie Merchant is embarking on a summer tour still has the feel of a comeback. It’ll be the first string of dates she’s played since she went out in support of her self-titled 2014 album, which really was a comeback: her first set of original songs in 13 years. But the new tour, called 3 Decades Of Song, previews an upcoming box set and will dig deep into her back catalog, which is richer and larger than she typically gets credit for. It won’t be her first retrospective, but it will be the first to cover her solo career as well as her tenure with 10,000 Maniacs, to acknowledge the continuum between those two projects, taking her legacy into her own hands.
It’s no surprise that Merchant hasn’t had the cachet she enjoyed in the ’80s and ’90s, when she fronted the Jamestown, NY band 10,000 Maniacs and eventually went solo with a string of modest hits like “Carnival” and “Wonder.” In fact, many of her peers from those two decades have suffered in the new century. R.E.M. aren’t resonating with millennials, either because their ignominious end is still too fresh or because kids are tired of hearing every dude over 40 telling them that Murmur is the greatest thing ever. (It is, by the way.) Indigo Girls have become a cult folk act. U2 have their heads way up their asses, technologically and musically speaking. But 10,000 Maniacs seem to have been forgotten almost completely: Younger musicians aren’t dropping them into lists of influences, their albums aren’t getting deluxe anniversary reissues. A recent and highly informal poll of young people in my college town revealed that no one had heard a lick of their music.
Merchant may not care, actually. She has rarely waxed nostalgic for her youth or her old band, has never seemed to care about the typical markers of success. Her interviews are full of declarations of disdain for the industry and all the aspects of band life that might distract from the art itself. That made her compelling as a young woman, when she was an artist writing songs about systemic abuse and oppression and releasing them on a major label (long before Conor Oberst faced a similar contradiction). As a music-biz veteran, it’s confounding: Aren’t aging artists supposed to be living off the proceeds of the past, scheduling reunion gigs or playing beloved albums in their entirety? Her reluctance to play that particular game has been refreshing, albeit certainly not lucrative, although 3 Decades Of Song suggests she is at long last willing to survey her catalog. Or at least dip her toe in the waters.
Her songs can be surprisingly difficult to describe. They are rooted in the folk groups of the ’60s and ’70s, with Merchant exhibiting the forcefulness of Sandy Denny and the erudite phrasing of Joan Baez, yet the band was enthralled by the same skuzzy postpunk that inspired R.E.M and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. They started life as a reggae band, and their self-released 1981 debut EP, Human Conflict Number Five, sounds more like the Slits than Fairport Convention. Eventually — thankfully — they would abandon songs like “Planned Obsolescence” and “Dub Groove” for an equally esoteric folk-pop that balanced whimsy and gravity while providing a useful frame for Merchant’s studious story-songs. A high-school dropout from Jamestown (a burg most famous in the ’80s for a particularly virulent Satanic panic scare), she penned aggressively intelligent songs about illiteracy, poverty, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism, eventually growing to address westward expansion, income inequality, fundamentalist Christian terrorism, the rape of Africa, the dulling of the American sublime, and other subjects ideal for a summer tour. Even when she sang in character, every song arose from the same perspective, the same set of eyes, however book-bound those eyes might have been.
So it might seem surprising that the band took its name rather hastily, adapting the title of a 1964 gorefest called Two Thousand Maniacs! by renowned B-movie auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis, about a small town in the American South still honoring its antebellum heritage in the most spectacularly grisly ceremonies imaginable. Such a quantity of insane people did not fit the band or its music in the least; in 1994’s New Book Of Rock Lists, the critic Dave Marsh ranked 10,000 Maniacs the 36th worst group name, right between the Brand New Heavies and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He’s not wrong, but there is a hidden meaning in the unlikely cinematic reference that dovetails almost too perfectly with Merchant’s songwriting enterprise: Hers are largely unsentimental songs about confronting the horrors of the American past as well as its often brutal present.
Pondering the fates of Gold Rush brides and Beat poets, Spanish bullfighters and Italian painters, Merchant saw pop songcraft as a useful vehicle for addressing incredibly tangled social and historical issues, often penning them as open-letters to historical figures (“Poor De Chirico”) or devising epic narratives of mass migrations and cultural movements (“Hateful Hate”). She sympathizes with unlikely people, such that “Hey Jack Kerouac” is less sympathetic to the writer/typist himself than to his poor mother, who watched her son lose himself out in America. “When you were the brightest star, who were the shadows?” Merchant asks, and there’s something immensely satisfying about Merchant wagging a finger at that notorious boys club.
Unlike so many of her peers — Michael Stipe comes to mind, as do the Indigo Girls and Grant Lee Buffalo — Merchant was rarely ever cryptic in her language or subject matter. She spoke loudly and directly, putting everything out in the open. If a song was about illiteracy, it would have a line like, “I can’t read to save my life, I’m so ashamed to say.” If she writes about a G.I. visiting the Vietnam Memorial, she’s going to pepper it with details about the DC Metro system and she’s going to pose the obvious question about who really killed all the men listed on the Wall: “Was it Washington or the Viet Cong?” And yet, she can still make those moments powerful, partly through the stridency of her voice and partly because the songs are open-ended, usually with history providing whatever closure might come to the grieving. In that boldness lies a very particular kind of humanity, one based in empathy and curiosity, so it’s invigorating, perhaps even comforting that you never have to wonder what a Natalie Merchant song is about or what side she’s on.
Even in the 1980s — a decade where pop frivolity routinely mingled with social issues, often with unintentionally hilarious results — Merchant was often dismissed as pretentious and naïve: a harpy, a schoolmarm, a pop scold, a stern governess lecturing her impudent charges. She does employ the accusatory second-person far too often, especially when singing about happy puppets and candy everybody wants. She’s unfailingly, even grimly serious, to the point where “My Sister Rose,” an upbeat song set at a wedding reception, has a dark undercurrent to it. You half-expect her to mention the Contras and nuclear disarmament in her toast to the newlyweds. And don’t get her started about the wedding night: In songs like “Eat For Two,” sex is a danger facing young women who “risk the game by taking dares with ‘yes.'” “Jubilee,” which contains some of her most sensual lyrics, ends with a scene as gruesome and alarming as anything from Two Thousand Maniacs!
Merchant’s approach alienated as many listeners as it attracted. When SPIN put her on the cover in 1989, the writer barely disguised his disdain for the singer-songwriter, quickly veering into outright sexism to describe her clothing and “her big ethnic lips, kicky little haircut, insinuating alto.” (I need to wash my hands after typing those words out.) She’s more self-aware than the journalist, admitting that she is no expert on the subjects she writes and sings about. But she knows enough to probe these issues and fashion opinions about them. “I don’t like getting too involved speaking about politics because I’m sure that my knowledge of it is extremely limited. But it just seems apparent to me that it’s … wrong. It’s really wrong.”
Here she is owning up to her own limited horizon of experience, yet because she was never defeatist, never cynical, never less than completely convinced that singing about an issue might somehow change it for the better, she refused to accept that limitation — one everybody shares — as an excuse not to act. And sure, Robert Christgau is correct when he complains about how her song about colonialism in Africa ignores slavery in favor of the massive metaphor of poached elephants, but “Hateful Hate” (Morrissey weeps for not thinking of the phrase first) is so embedded in the slow crawl of history, in the mass movement of people across continents, that the scope of the song is impressive, even overwhelming. With its cathedral organ and Robert Buck’s snarls of guitar feedback, the song sounds like a widescreen panorama from a disaster movie, like the shot of the Civil War dead in Gone With The Wind.
“Hateful Hate” appears on the band’s 1989 album Blind Man’s Zoo, which is Merchant at her most outraged and therefore at her most ambitious. The characters in these angry story-songs tend to be victims of oppressing regimes: the traumatized soldiers marching through “The Big Parade,” the teenage girl pondering baby clothes in “Eat For Two,” the nickel-and-dimed mother trying to feed her kids in “Dust Bowl” (“My youngest girl has bad fever, sure/ All night with alcohol to cool and rub her down”). Perhaps that’s why this album, while not Merchant’s best, still sounds compellingly relevant: Every institution is under constant attack, every issue she raised remains unsettled, and women who vocalize their convictions are shouted down as “Social Justice Warriors,” “whiners,” or “snowflakes.” “Poison The Well” might as well be about Flint, Michigan; “The Lion’s Share” tackles income inequality before that phrase had widespread use; “Headstrong” is an alarmingly apt depiction of public discourse in 2017: “I mind my feelings and not your words,” Merchant sings, her voice growing more determined with each word. “Didn’t you notice I’m so headstrong even when I know I’m wrong?” The band might have quickly disowned many of these songs as bummers, but there is something about that tone that sounds perfectly attuned to the current moment in American history.
So, no: Merchant was no punk, and 10,000 Maniacs no hardcore band, yet Blind Man’s Zoo has the bravado commonly associated with that genre. It’s straight-edge folk-pop obsessed with institutional oppression. Not confessional in the usual sense, these songs still reveal a great deal about their singer and how she engages with the world. The band’s follow-up, by contrast, is all about personal agency, which makes it relevant in a different way. Our Time In Eden is full of people making their own decisions and taking action, both in the past and in the present. “These are days you’ll remember,” Merchant sings on the first single, “These Are Days,” which is intended as a challenge to her fans as well as an explanation of her characters. In “Jezebel,” as close to a love song as Merchant ever wrote, a wife endures abuse and disdain for ending her marriage. In “Gold Rush Brides” scores of young women risk “madness, childbirth, loneliness, and grief” in the American West. Even the vivid nostalgia of “Stockton Gala Days” sounds like an active pursuit — not a passive memory but a purposeful recollection of senses and details. The world may be grim and dangerous, yet life even at its most extreme remains rewarding, as beautiful as we want it to be.
10,000 Maniacs were taking action themselves, refining their guitar-driven folk-pop and expanding their palette to include chamber strings and R&B rhythms courtesy of the JB Horns. The band’s most successful release, Our Time In Eden also sounds a bit like a Merchant solo album; she dominates the proceedings like never before, leaving the band members with little to do. In particular Robert Buck’s guitar sounds crowded out of the mix, used less as a lead and more as embellishment. Which is a shame: After their less-than-auspicious beginnings, 10,000 Maniacs quickly evolved into a tight, formidable, and deeply resourceful unit. The rhythm section of drummer Jerome Augustyniak and bass player Steve Gustafson lent the songs a sense of playful movement, shaping and directing the melodies and pushing the songs along at a clip that’s more rock than pop. Augustyniak is the rare drummer who’s keenly attuned to a singer’s mannerisms, occasionally playing her foil (the double-time beat of “Noah’s Dove”) but more often reinforcing her common-sense-firm arguments (the insistent snare taps of “Don’t Talk,” which sound like a fist pounding a table mid-argument).
In a just world Robert Buck would have been celebrated as a folk-rock guitar hero, one who dealt not in blues-based rock riffs but in texture and grain, in tones and ideas. Even as early as Human Conflict Number Five, the band’s self-released debut EP in 1981, he’s filling the space with strange sounds, like the quivery notes, just behind the beat, on “Planned Obsolescence.” He’s a remarkable presence on the early albums, especially In My Tribe; he jangles and boogies and jabs and bruises, adding a stately elegance to “The Painted Desert” and a humanistic empathy to “Cherry Tree.” His finest moment may be “Don’t Talk,” about arguing with a drunk. He plays a woozy fanfare between the verses, which might sound a bit too thematically precise if it didn’t fill in the spaces between Merchant’s words so sympathetically, like a hand on her shoulder. He steps up to play the melodic lead on the coda, and rather than engaging in the heated discussion, he soundtracks a retreat, an escape, as though Merchant’s narrator has simply flown away. Buck died in 2000.
Following the release of Our Time In Eden in 1992 and the fairly redundant Unplugged in 1993, Merchant left the group. “I didn’t want to have to consult with all these other people,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t want art by committee anymore.” She also didn’t want to be the only woman in a band full of dudes, and you can understand her frustration with a band that seemed less serious about these issues than she was. The remaining band members promoted touring violinist Mary Ramsey to the role of frontwoman, scored a very minor hit with a cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” and even released a comeback album as recently as 2015. But their perseverance is more interesting than their records.
In the short term, Merchant’s departure made sense; in the long term, it had serious repercussions. She quickly recorded and released Tigerlily, in which her folk-pop curdled into soft-rock; “bloodless and limp” was how Rolling Stone described it in a rare one-and-a-half-star review. It “provides a perfect soundtrack to the Prozac nation.” The songs themselves are fine, but the art, while not by committee, still suffered: blah arrangements, indistinct production, stiff grooves, and anodyne choruses. How much better would it have sounded with the band behind her? Subsequent releases, in particular 1998’s Ophelia, would improve on her debut, but Merchant to her credit was not interested in keeping up with the changing pop landscape (although her cameo on Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue is a notable punctuation to her solo career).
In the 21st century, Merchant has been almost impossible to pin down. After a strong studio album in 2003, Motherland, which was inspired by becoming a mother, she has since lent her effort and attention to what might be considered ancillary releases: a live album, a solo retrospective, a collection of lullabies, a song-for-song covers album of her own Tigerlily. She actively withdrew herself from the music business in order to raise her daughter, and in doing so became something of a specter, half-remembered by one generation and unknown to the next. Influence, however, doesn’t always travel direct routes and straight lines. Merchant’s outward-rippling impact on the musical landscape can be heard in the brainy and fantastical songwriting of Colin Meloy, in the rambling story-songs of Joanna Newsom, in the fearless engagement of Hurray For The Riff Raff, in the skewed folk of Weyes Blood. At the very least Merchant offers some sense of how we might address our current raft of problems in song: directly yet imaginatively, angrily yet righteously.
In 2014 Natalie Merchant demanded the eponymous title if only because it served as a reintroduction to an artist who showed off the gray in her hair, who didn’t hide the new texture the intervening years had added to her voice, but who still continued to write from a distinct and identifiable perspective. She knew then — and even as she embarks on a retrospective tour, she knows now — that she’ll never be the young woman she was in the ’80s and ’90s, and that idea may be the most compelling aspect of this new string of dates. How has her sense of “really wrong” changed in 30 years?