She may be pretentious and self-righteous, but to her credit, Natalie Merchant sticks like non-toxic, environmentally correct glue to her vision. For instance, Merchant previewed “Ophelia” with a “companion film” in which she acts the roles of seven different characters, from a Depression-era suffragette to a Mob floozy. Sure it?s borderline deranged, but what other pop act would even attempt such a thing?
“Ophelia,” the album, goes its own way with equal ferocity. It?s more affluently produced than 1995?s austere “Tigerlily,” her vocal swoons and sighs accompanied by layers of church-service organs and dashes of world music vocalizing. Yet the mood is even more somber than that of its predecessor. This may be the only superstar release this summer that won?t spawn a Puff Daddy remix.
When she?s down, it?s hard to count Merchant out. At its most elegantly dour, “Ophelia” conjures images of stately mansion living rooms with their curtains drawn, its forlorn narrators sobbing on couches. With its sorrowful piano and cello, ?My Skin? feels like the bastard child of an R.E.M. ballad and the “Titanic” soundtrack. “Break Your Heart,” which picks up the beat ever so slightly, makes a breezy hook out of the line, “People ruthless, people cruel/The damage that some people do, it?s enough to make you lose your mind.”
But what was refreshingly solemn about “Tigerlily” grows oppressive on “Ophelia.” Merchant still tends to make mulch out of her lyrics, and overproduction often reduces her melodies to pea soup. The comforting “Life Is Sweet” and the farewell “King of May” have the sort of sturdy, folkish melodies that are her strength. Yet in both, she virtually fights to be heard against a string section. “Thick as Thieves” is a humorless finger-pointer about “the chaos of the Millennium and the falling out of the doomsday crowd.” Merchant breaks free on “Kind & Generous,” indulging herself in a “na na na na” chorus. But “Ophelia” makes you wonder whether it?s time Merchant began listening to voices other than those inside her own peculiar head.