Her first collection of mostly original material for nearly a decade makes up an album about love in all its many forms, with some typically literate references
For a music fan of a certain age, Natalie Merchant will always be known as ‘the voice of 10,000 Maniacs‘, the influential alt-folk act who were a staple on US college radio throughout the mid-late ’80s. The band are still a going concern, although Merchant left in 1994 to embark on a solo career.
That solo career has had its ups and downs, it’s fair to say. The huge success of Tigerlily in 1995 has never really been matched, but it seems fair to say that Merchant has always been more interested in following her own instincts than becoming commercially successful. Whether it is a collection of poetry set to music, covers albums, or even revisiting Tigerlily itself for 2015’s Paradise Is There project, Merchant has always followed her own nose.
Know Your Courage is the first collection of original material (with one cover version) by Merchant for nearly a decade. For the last few years, she’s suffered with health problems, undergoing surgery for a spinal condition which threatened to rob her of her voice altogether. It’s only when you listen to Keep Your Courage, and hear that unmistakable vocal ringing out that you realise what a tragedy that would have been.
For Natalie Merchant has one of those voices that elevates whatever material she sings. Although the album was recorded during the pandemic, and she’s said that the material is a direct response to lockdown, there’s thankfully no references to covid or social isolation. Instead, this is an album about love in all its many forms, with some typically literate references to figures such as Aphrodite and Narcissus.
The first two tracks are actually duets with Abena Koomson-Davis, a singer from the Resistance Revival Chorus, a choral group of women and non-binary singers who are signed to Ani DiFranco‘s Righteous Babe label. Merchant and Koomson-Davis’ voices blend together beautifully on opening track Big Girls, which is an oddly melancholic, downbeat choice to open the album.
More successful is the track which follows it, Come On Aphrodite, a soulful pop number in which Merchant and Koomson-Davis vocally bounce off each other as they sing about falling in love, invoking the Greek goddess of love. It’s one of the lighter moments on the album, with some particularly lush horn orchestrations enhancing the song.
Merchant is at her best on moments like this, when the mood is almost playful. Tower Of Babel is slinky, almost funky in parts, while she’s at her most inspiring on Sister Tilly, a tribute to historical female figures who were an influence on Merchant. Like all the tracks on Know Your Courage, it’s beautifully orchestrated and perfectly sung, even if, at over eight minutes, it’s a bit too long.
There are a couple of tracks that veer towards the forgettable, and the overall downbeat tempo of the album as a whole may test the patience of some listeners. The album’s sole cover version, Hunting The Wren (originally by Irish folk band Lankum) is a notable misfire, coming across as a bit of a dirge amongst the more polished, soulful material.
Yet even on the less memorable songs, Merchant never sounds anything less than completely captivating, especially given her recent health troubles. The last track, The Feast Of St Valentine, makes for a touching closer: “Love will set you free and love will be your bonds, love will win.” It’s a timely reminder that, no matter what travails you suffer, love will find a way. It’s a fitting manner for one of the more impressive voices of her generation to sign off her return.