River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the whole album with new arrangements and is performing the whole of the album on this tour, using the new arrangements put together for Paradise is There. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.*

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

natalie-merchant

* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice, and initially seemed to dismiss my comments about the musical similarity. It’s as clear as day, though, especially on River. She said to me when the first song of the second set was over that, now I’d pointed it out, the Stipe influence was plainly audible.

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