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Pop Music

A brooding Merchant sings of the seasons in a woman’s life


Last night, I served steaks and potatoes to a group of men at the restaurant where I work. They were a father and two adult sons, the sons about my age. I greeted them, and the father, right away, said that I looked “real nice” to him. I smiled and tried to move the conversation to the restaurant’s nightly specials. Later, not to be deterred, he asked if he could take me home with him. I said that my husband probably wouldn’t appreciate that. We both laughed, though not for the same reasons. He thought he was suave, captivating. I was concerned about my tip, ever vigilant to any change in dining dynamic that might threaten it. Sometimes, I have to cater to egos. It’s part of the job.

I’ve worked in food service, on and off, for nearly 10 years. I got my start at a tourist bar in Waikiki. I wore a tiny skirt and flowered blouse and sold mai tais and Blue Hawaiis. Now, I work at a steak house that specializes in multi-pound steaks for hearty cowboy appetites. I’m older, in my thirties, and have traded my short skirts and leis for jeans and long-sleeved denim shirts.

In both jobs, I’ve dealt with unwanted male attention. What surprises me is how that attention has changed over the years. No longer do young men leer at me and flirt. Now it is their fathers, men old enough to be my father, who lavish me with attention.

I read once that men ideally want a woman who is half their age, plus five or six years. By that formula, I’m ripe for a man in his early fifties. That makes sense, judging by the attention I’ve received lately. When I was in Hawaii, it was men my age, maybe a little older, who flirted with me. These men don’t give me a second glance now, unless it’s in embarrassment over the behavior of their elders.

As much as the attention annoys me, I wonder how I’ll feel when all the men twice my age are dead, and nobody bothers with me anymore. I fear that I’ll miss the flirting, just a little. My feminist side is appalled that I’d ever admit it, but I have a hunch that many women, even the world’s most glamorous, feel the same. Does Cindy Crawford, now 32, ever wonder how much longer she’ll grace magazine covers? What about Julia Roberts? Helen Hunt? I confess that I’m happy when I see one of them shining on a television news show or a supermarket tabloid cover. As long as they are seen as beautiful, maybe I can still be beautiful, too.

Still, there’s a large group of young ones vying for the publicity, the Gwyneth Paltrows and Jennifer Love Hewitts of the world. Heck, I know that 31 isn’t old. But our culture likes its women young, and none of us stays that way forever.

Natalie Merchant, former lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs and herself 34, has a new album that delves into these emotions and more. Ophelia, which debuted at number 8 on the Billboard album charts, explores the seasons of a woman’s life.

The CD’s cover and inside pictures show Merchant in a variety of roles, all taken from the title song, “Ophelia.” In that song, Merchant sings about Ophelia, “bride of God,” “rebel girl,” “sweetheart,” “demigoddess,” “mistress,” “hurricane,” “madwoman.” The album then flows into songs that speak more about Ophelia and every woman, and the joys and struggles of the female journey.

This is a woman’s album. That doesn’t mean that men won’t appreciate it. They will, especially if they can honor a powerful and sometimes dark femininity. The album does have its upbeat moments, with several songs that are reminiscent of Merchant’s debut album, the multi-platinum 1995 Tiger Lily. In general, though, Ophelia is a heavy collection, one that broods, questions -- but ultimately exudes hope.

Merchant, who grew up in the Catholic church, is enjoying a graced popularity these days. She’s a co-headliner with Sarah McLachlan at this summer’s traveling all-women Lilith Fair music festival, and she recently made the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Ophelia is her second solo album; on it, she plays piano, Wurlitzer and Hammond, along with writing every song, except for the final tract, “When They Ring the Golden Bells,” a 110-year-old hymn newly arranged for Merchant’s album.

The first single from Ophelia, “Kind and Generous,” made it into the top 10 on the Billboard charts. It’s a song devoted to saying thank-you, guaranteeing it a spot on the play list at wedding receptions and graduation parties for years to come. Merchant sings “thank you” at least 30 times during the song and “la la la” even more than that. It’s an upbeat, catchy tune, even though toward the end, the “thank you thank you” starts to blur into a nearly indistinguishable mush. Still, it’s a good reminder to give thanks to the people who love us, and refreshing that such a positive message has received so much radio airplay.

Along with giving thanks, Merchant gives advice. The song “Life is Sweet” is a pep talk for the oppressed little girls of the world, the young Ophelias, who grow up with mothers who are “bitter brides” and fathers who are iron men, “battle ship wrecked on dry land.” When their parents tell them that “Life is hard/Misery from the start/It’s dull, it’s slow, it’s painful” Merchant counters with a gift of hope. “But I tell you life is sweet,” she sings. “In spite of the misery/There’s so much more, be grateful.” Here, there is no denial of pain. It’s a part of each of our lives, which are “all so very short” and over “before you know it.” The prayer, then, is that we’ll “be thankful” in spite of the struggles and will cherish every precious minute of it.

N’dea Davenport, formerly of the Brand New Heavies, joins Merchant for the lilting “Break Your Heart.” This song has a deceptively upbeat jazziness, with a smooth trumpet accompaniment and mellow string undertones. The music runs contrary to the lyrics though, which examine the suffering and sadness pervasive in today’s society. “People struggle, people fight/For the simple pleasures in their lives/The troubles come from everywhere/It’s a little more than you can bear,” they sing. In typical Merchant style, the song doesn’t end with this acknowledgment of pain. Instead, she admonishes the listener to carry on, even though the “way things are” will break your heart. “Don’t spread discontent,” she says, “Don’t spread the lies. Don’t make the same mistakes with your own life.”

While all women can relate to the soul ruptures and disillusionment of “Break Your Heart,” the haunting “My Skin” is aimed at those of a certain age, that time when we realize how fleeting youth is. “I’m the slow dying flower/In the frost killing hour/Sweet turning sour and untouchable,” Merchant sings. If this isn’t bad enough, so often there’s a lover, a partner, who witnesses the changes and reminds us of what we used to be. “Do you remember the way that you touched me before/All the trembling sweetness I loved and adored/Your face saying promises whispered like prayers/I don’t need them,” she sings.

She’s right. As time passes, we grow into our changing bodies, changing lives, and no longer crave the approving glances and clever comments that we once grasped. Instead, we need life -- rough, wild, real. We need relationships that grow beyond appearances. We need “the darkness ... sweetness ... sadness ... weakness” that gave us our gray hair and stretch marks. We need all the strange, holy gifts of time, because they catapult us into our own skin, away from that place where men control us by their attention or lack of it.

The album’s final song is a lovely fusion of past and present that brings a timeless quality to the collection. “When They Ring the Golden Bells” was written in 1887, but its words of hope are perfect for an album like Ophelia. The song reminds us of that “far off sweet forever/Just beyond the shining river,” where we will know no sin, sorrow or anguish, but only blessing and freedom. It is a song of unmistakable faith that gives the album an upbeat conclusion. Very few contemporary pop artists would be gutsy enough to record a 19th-century hymn like this. Merchant ignores industry conventions, and it works.

Ophelia is more than just a collection of songs. It is a story of women, a celebration of life, of all its angst and joys, from the time when we first find our voices to the day when the golden bells ring for us. Through our lives, it is the years that teach us. They make us stronger. They give us ourselves.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998