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Ophelia is a 1998 album by the former 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant. It was her second solo album and a darker and more challenging (some would say pretentious) proposition than her debut. In the sleeve art, Merchant, who usually looks like a strangely attractive Amish nun wearing nerdy plain clothes for a summer garden fete, is dressed up as a variety of characters to illustrate feminine archetypes and people she hasn't been yet. Bit strange to see her without her usual drab clobber but it serves to highlight the theme of the album I suppose. There are eleven songs here and many of them are much longer than usual, often running to over five minutes. The title song Ophelia is heavy sounding with obstreperous ominous claustrophobic music and drums and Natalie Merchant seems to struggle slightly at times to make herself heard. Anyone expecting a flowery Joni Mitchell type album will probably find this a somewhat surprising beginning to the album. The vocal is still good though with Merchant's distinctive folksy twang still detectable. The lyrics are interesting too and Merchant is not a bad wordsmith at all. "Ophelia was a tempest, cyclone, A god damned hurricane, Your common sense, Your best defense, Lay wasted and in vain." There are snatches of people speaking in foreign languages at the end of this song, adding to the slightly strange atmosphere that the album has sometimes. I don't know what languages they are using. Klingon maybe. Life is Sweet is a prettier song, much more mid-tempo and upbeat with strings and a catchy aura as it ambles along. Merchant's rich vocals are much more front and centre here and so the song as a whole is far more accessible and easy to listen to than the first one. You could imagine this being played on the radio. Merchant's usually cryptic lyrics seem much more straight ahead here. "They told you life is hard, It's misery from the start, It's dull and slow and painful, I tell you life is sweet, In spite of the misery There's so much more, Be grateful."
Kind & Generous is a fairly run of the mill and unmemorable song that never really goes anywhere surprising or catchy. Merchant's lyrics are rather basic for her and she eventually descends into "la la's" (I'm probably completely wrong but I always imagine singers do this when they were uninspired in the studio and couldn't think up enough lyrics). The lyrics are actually a direct thank you to her fans for the success she has enjoyed. "You've been so kind and generous, I don't know how you keep on giving, For your kindness I'm in debt to you, For your selflessness, my admiration, And for everything you've done." Frozen Charlotte is one of the best songs on the album I think. This slows the pace right down and simplifies the music. It's much more of a ballad with a dreamlike aura and allows Merchant's vocal to be the star. The (sometimes cryptic) lyrics paint some strong images. "Blue like the winter snow in this full moon, Black like the silhouettes of the trees, Late blooming flowers lye frozen underneath the stars, I want you to remember me that way, Blue like the winter snow in this full moon, Black like the silhouettes of the trees, Late blooming flowers lye frozen underneath the stars, I want you to remember me that way." My Skin is a piano weepie with an almost whispered vocal and another good one. The vocal is heartfelt and not a million miles away from the sort of thing Morrissey would do in one of his more maudlin moods (10,000 Maniacs once covered Everyday Is Like Sunday so Merchant was obviously aware of Morrissey/Smiths). Cheer up Natalie, it might never happen (etc) is the general aura, but the song is good. "I've been treated so wrong, I've been treated so long, As if I'm becoming untouchable, I'm a slow dying flower, Frost killing hour, The sweet turning sour, And untouchable."
Break Your Heart is a song about selfish pushy loud over confident people and Merchant's dislike for them. Join the club Natalie. This is a slightly rambling song, quite slow, and not really one of my favourites I must admit. It never really grabbed or charmed me and it has a jazzy feel when what sounds like some saxophones pipe up. "People downcast in despair, See the disillusion everywhere, Hoping their bad luck will change, Gets a little harder every day, People struggle, people fight, For the simple pleasures in their lives, But trouble comes from everywhere, It's a little more than you can bear." King of May is a pretty languid song with an increasingly soaring and rich vocal performance by Natalie Merchant. Not quite a classic but very good anyway. This song is dedicated to the late beat poet Alan Ginsberg, someone she admired a lot. "Farewell today, Travel on now, Be on your way, Can't bear the very thought, That we could keep your majesty, Be on your way." It's a nice tribute. Thick as Thieves is a big gloomy song that is impressive but not exactly a barrel of laughs. There are strings and more modern guitars on this and Merchant's voice is heavier than usual. It's a good vocal performance and a good song but not one I could see myself ever listening to an awful lot. "The worst of it has come and gone, In the chaos of millennium, In the falling out of the doomsday crowd, Their last retreat is moving slow, They burn their bridges as they go, The heretic is beatified, He'll teach the harlot's child to smile." This song seems to be about war although I could be wrong.
Effigy is one of the few songs here that doesn't go on for over five minutes and is probably not essential. Merchant's whispered vocal sounds as if it is going through the motions somewhat although it's quite nice of course. This is like Morrissey's cover of Moonriver. Nice but does it really need to exist? The Living is a pretty song and another ballad I suppose. Merchant's vocal is deliberately weary and sad as she takes on the persona of someone who has made a mess of life and peeps from behind the curtains with a bottle of something contemplating suicide. Maybe this was Natalie Merchant's life! I doubt it somehow. She always strikes me as someone who gets up at 5 in the morning and makes collages out of All-Bran before doing some Tibetan chanting. "What's it like there outside, With the living?, From this broken down place, Where I hide, From the living." I think Merchant is taking on the persona of someone else, most probably a man. When They Ring the Golden Bells is a duet by Merchant with Karen Peris (no idea who she is) and a reading of a 1887 hymn. It's pretty good with lovely vocals but maybe does go on a bit. "There's a land beyond the river, That they call the sweet forever, And we only reach that shore by faith's decree, One by one we'll gain the portals, There to dwell with the immortals, When they ring the golden bells for you and me." The album ends with an impressive instrumental reprise of title song Ophelia. Ophelia is an impressive album at times but loses a star by being rather too gloomy on the whole and having one too many songs that feel a bit one-note and samey. It's great at its best but I don't think Ophelia quite represents the very best that the singer is capable of.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Life Is Sweet
3 Kind & Generous
4 Frozen Charlotte
5 My Skin
6 Break Your Heart
7 King Of May
8 Thick As Thieves
10 The Living
11 When They Ring Them Golden Bells