I consider Natalie Merchant’s “Ophelia” as the point when her solo career really commenced. She had released an album before (1995’s “Tigerlily”), but that album was more like the closing of a stage than the start of a new one. Conversely, “Ophelia” (released in 1998) is her first truly realized artistic statement, using every device that she wants to use, and letting her own voice and musical vision dominate every single minute of the album.
In actuality, “Ophelia” was a multimedia project – the CD was accompanied by a short video, and stills from the film constitute the artwork of the album. A concept is clearly discernible, although there are songs like “King Of May” that deviate from the overall study of the famed Ophelia, a female figure par excellence, and an obvious choice for Natalie, someone always concerned about the way women are perceived and how these perceptions can end up being lies which are always true.
That is the theme of the album’s eponymous track, and the first thing you listen to when you play the CD. Incidentally, it will also be the last thing you will listen to – an orchestral reprise closes the album. The song studies the character of Ophelia all through history, her feats and the eventual disgraces those achievements were to bring about. The fate of Ophelia reminds me of the words of Yeats: “I’ve grown nothing/being all”. Is Natalie studying the role of women from a perspective that implies so much effort to be regarded as equal did nothing but accentuate differences that were actually small to begin with? And is the result of such a situation that women end up being relegated to submissive romantic roles, such as in the song “Frozen Charlotte”?
That might be so, but Natalie also reminds us on the album that “life is sweet” and we have enough reasons to feel “kind and generous”, both for the smiles and for the tears that our interaction with others redounds to.
The true emotional powerhouse of the album to me, though, is “My Skin”. Natalie’s voice goes from being subdued to a profound elevation. I have never heard Ms. Merchant showcasing her skills so markedly, and the lyrics (dealing with a rejection and a loss so savage that no further gain could counterbalance them) lend themselves admirably to her delivery
Elsewhere, we have a tribute to Allen Ginsberg named “King Of May” which breaks the mood of the album and ends up resembling an intermission, a composition with a Tibetan fragment (“My Effigy”) and “Thick As Thieves”, a song that has a long lyric that deals with the rise and fall of man, and whether or not in a world divided spiritual unity is viable any longer.
The final track is Natalie’s arrangement of the traditional song “When They Ring The Golden Bells”. I am not overly-enamored with it, and I have listened to several versions by other artists that I deem as better takes on that song. For example, Emmylou Harris’ version (from the “Angel Band” album) is one I hold in greater esteem.
On the whole, “Ophelia” is an enjoyable listen. Natalie’s vision does not match the vision of her former band, and those looking for more Maniacs’ fire will be let down. The fire is the only thing absent here, mind you. The glow remains – and it shines brighter than ever. And the warmth can still be felt. And it is felt not stronger but actually closer than it was felt before. This is Natalie. This is what she wants to show us, and what she wants us to feel. She is leading us through corridors. But (unlike Ophelia) there is no reason to wander through them all alone. Life is a “glory, hallelujah jubilee” indeed. Natalie told us so from day one. She will keep on saying it using different devices through her career. And we know we will be listening every single time. It is always worth it.