The Good: Some decent lyrics, Generally interesting sound
The Bad: Vocally limited/produced
The Basics: A surprisingly good album, Ophelia is lyrically expressive and different from most other female pop-rock albums, though it stays within its own niche pretty tightly.
Of late, one of the standards by which I rate albums tends to be whether or not the best songs on the album are available on compilations. After all, there are plenty of musical artists and performers who have one or two hits spread out over a couple of albums who then release a "best of" album and that becomes a far greater value than either of the two albums that housed their hits originally. However, sometimes, those same one or two-hit wonders have little gems secreted away on their albums that were never released as singles or regarded by the artist as the best they created. As a result, sometimes, it is germane to go back to the original albums and pick them up instead of just going with a compilation album.
Natalie Merchant's album Ophelia is one of the latter type of albums. Despite its recognizable cover, the only real hit the album produced was "Kind & Generous" and it might be written off as not worth picking up, especially now that Merchant has Retrospective available. The thing is, Retrospective has the hit, "Break Your Heart," "Life Is Sweet" and "The Living" from Ophelia, but not the title track or "My Skin." The result - especially the lack of "My Skin" - makes Ophelia worth buying, regardless of whether or not they want "Retrospective." Yes, it's just good enough of an album on the "b-sides" to make it worth the buy.
With only twelve songs, clocking in at 56:45, Ophelia seems to mostly be the work of Natalie Merchant. Merchant wrote all of the songs, save the traditional piece "When They Ring The Golden Bells." She provides the lead vocals on all of the eleven songs that have vocals (there is an instrumental reprise of Ophelia at the end). As well, Merchant plays wurlitzer on two songs, piano on three tracks and hammond on one of the songs as well. Instrumentally, she is not as much of a participant as many musical artists, nor is she credited with any form of production credit on the album. Still, this does appear to largely be the work of Natalie Merchant and her musical vision.
Merchant's writing on Ophelia is generally decent, with a good sensibility toward the poetic. Merchant has a good balance between both imagery and emotion on the album with songs alternating well between musing, contemplative songs ("Life Is Sweet," "My Skin," "Effigy") and storysongs in a tradition that is almost folk-rock in nature (“Ophelia,” "King Of May"). In fact, if there is any real doubt as to the quality of Merchant's works, it's hard to make that case by the lyrics on this album.
Take, for example, "My Skin." This song is a haunting number that Merchant uses to express loss and hurt. Merchant passes herself off as a credible expert on the subjects when she writes "I've been treated so wrong / I've been treated so long / As if I'm becoming untouchable / Contempt loves the silence / It thrives in the dark / With fine winding tendrils / That strangle the heart / They say that promises / Sweeten the blow / But I don't need them / No, I don't need them" ("My Skin"). Merchant is remarkably expressive with an economy of language on the song, making it one of her most effective tracks.
The title track, “Ophelia,” is a worthy one as well, smartly recasting Ophelia as the everywoman heroine. Instead of being the distraught, mentally ill love interest, she is the embodiment of all women's strength in Merchant's take on her. Merchant rewrites the immortal character as "Ophelia was a rebel girl / A blue stocking suffragette / Who remedied society / Between her cigarettes / Ophelia was a sweetheart / To the nation over night / Curvaceous thighs / Vivacious eyes / Love was at first sight. / Ophelia was a demigoddess / In pre war Babylon / So statuesque a silhouette / In black satin evening gowns" (“Ophelia”). It's an interesting take and it opens the album quite well.
The other nice thing about Merchant's writing on this album is she doesn't degenerate into the most simple or obvious rhyme schemes. She has complex thoughts to ask her listeners to consider and she presents them with the necessary complexity, as she does when she writes "People ruthless, people cruel / See the damage that some people do / Full of hatred, full of pride / It's enough to make you loose your mind / I know that it will hurt / I know that it will break your heart / The way things are / And the way they've been" ("Break Your Heart"). Merchant is a gifted enough writer to make it abundantly clear to the listener that she has something to say and the ability to say it well and with a truthful-sounding authority behind it.
Largely, Ophelia (the album) sounds good as well. Instrumentally, Merchant continues to defy the traditional pop-rock obsession with presenting either a guitar-driven or piano driven tracklist. Instead, she employs a much more diverse sense of orchestration to her songs, tending to be heavy on the bass, relying on organs and a whole string section on "King Of May." "Thick As Thieves" relies upon the cello, mixing it well with the electric guitar to create a sound not usually associated with pop-rock music.
And it works . . . to an extent. The problem with Ophelia tends to be that the album is monotonous in its lack of diversity. The songs are virtually all slow and ponderous with only things like the strangely inane "Kind & Generous" standing out as obvious pop tracks. The rest are slow, melodical and it's an easy album to fall asleep by. It's not that Merchant doesn't have something different to say or even an interesting way to say it, it's that Merchant's unique way of expressing herself is limited to her own little niche that she pioneers, then stays pretty firmly within. The result is an album that sounds different from most other albums, but track to track quickly wears thin with a sound that is fairly uniform.
Similarly, Merchant's range seems strangely limited vocally throughout the album. On "Effigy" she goes high and holds notes long, but the rest of the album, she seems content to stay within a fairly low range with deep, brooding presentation of her lyrics. This style only adds to the somewhat sleepy nature of her overall sound.
Ophelia is a good album and it certainly falls - pretty easily - into the classification of "above average," but it is at the low end of that spectrum. Those who are fans of energetic female singer-songwriters are bound to be more than a little disappointed in this album because it is lacking in the boisterous quality that Merchant has at her live performances. Instead, this is Merchant as a sullen and moody performer and if one is looking for that, this makes for a very decent album.
The best track is "My Skin," the low point is "When They Ring The Golden Bells."
For other works that include Natalie Merchant, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Our Time In Eden - 10,000 Maniacs
In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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