In many ways, Natalie’s debut can be named “predictable”. That is, it has the share of compositions that the debut album of anybody who has been in a band for years will have – IE, songs which are not that detached from the original vision of the band. Yet, Natalie was the dominant voice within the Maniacs. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the Maniacs’ albums without Natalie are the ones were the influence is felt the most, as those albums (notwithstanding how excellent they are) seem overtly attached to Ms. Merchant’s approach and sensibility.
The fact was that Natalie Merchant left the band after the release of “Our Time In Eden”, and she finally had the freedom to express what she felt and (for the first time) exactly how she felt it. If not all of the ties were severed by that point, it was only natural. That takes time. The bonds are felt more strongly on the song “Wonder”, which was the first single to be released, and which cracked the Top 20. The song is a somehow autobiographical piece, and in that context it is perfect – she sings about a life that is starting backed by instrumentation that resembles the one she left behind.
Conversely, the song “The Word” deals with the break-up from a somehow more anguished point of view. Natalie seems to be saying that mere knowledge is not necessarily translated into positive action. Knowing the word is one thing. Saying it is a different matter. Knowing what one has to do and doing it are different things. Personally, I think that contemplation and action are separated by a distance that is difficult to cover because it is so short. As a result, sometimes it is easier to “turn your head indifferent” as she sings here.
As successful as “Wonder” was, the biggest accolades were to go to the song “Carnival” Set apart by a particularly lively percussive backing, the song has a really memorable vocal melody, even if the lyrics might turn out to be the weakest on the whole album, along with the lyrics of the song “Cowboy Romance” (which is also written off in terms of music, incidentally). Still, there is not another single song within her repertoire that resembles “Carnival”, so you have to give her credit for not trying to establish a formula and running the show that way. She was to keep innovating and reinventing herself all through her career.
A particularly realized song is “Beloved Wife”. It is a particularly valuable piece because (in contrast to compositions like “Jezebel” or “Don’t Talk”) it deals with a couple were pure love was the driving force all along. In the song, the husband mourns the passing of his wife and wonders if it is wrong to follow her to where she has gone. It is a truly heartrending moment, and one of the album’s highlights.
Another tune which stands out is “The Letter”. It is a short, fragile composition that revolves around unexpressed feelings and the permanence they can have – far stronger than that of what has been conveyed.
Elsewhere, we have some compositions that are neither unpalatable nor engaging like “River” and “Where I Go”. They do not really lower the appeal, yet they stand as interludes that could have been more interesting.
And the album closer is the powerful “Seven Years”, where the character proclaims her intent to start anew. Her placing on the album could never have been unintentional, and it emphasizes the strongest feelings of all that were conveyed over the course of the preceding hour: independence. That is touched upon in both negative and positive manners, and “Seven Years” brings a resolution that is unequivocal – that of leaving behind what has gone before, and forge ahead.
“With love, with patience, and with faith, she’ll make her way.” That is what Natalie sang as the chorus to “Wonder”. Fifteen years later, we can confidently (and proudly) say that she got it right. A good album overall, and an excellent start to he career. Fans of her work with the Maniacs should pick it up before giving any of her other records a try.