The cover of singer Natalie Merchant's third solo album, "Motherland," is a striking portrait of tension. In one sense, it is the very picture of pastoral comfort. Shaded by a tree, Ms. Merchant sits peacefully next to a basket of apples.
But as a visual depiction of her lyrics, it's a profound clash of archetypes drawn straight from the Garden of Eden: virgin and temptress; nourishment and forbidden fruit; light and darkness; death and rebirth.
Not since French painter Paul Gauguin has an artist used the biblical story of creation to communicate an inner struggle so well. Indeed, Merchant's rhetorical questions in a recent phone interview - "What are we? Who are we? What are we doing?" - are eerily similar to Gauguin's 1897 masterpiece, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"
But "Motherland" is no cheap imitation. Rather, it deepens the distinction between the artists. Gauguin's "dust to dust" sentiment darkened his brilliant colors; Merchant's meditations - alternately plaintive and lilting - point to redemption.
Merchant's career doesn't follow the traditional hedonistic boom-bust-reunion arc that makes for a "Behind the Music" special on VH-1. In fact, it's surprising that her brand of folk-rock tunes and political lyrics met with such success in an era when peers Madonna and Pat Benatar were singing "Material Girl" and "Love is a Battlefield." But 10,000 Maniacs, the Jamestown, N.Y., band she fronted from 1981 until 1993, built a loyal following.
The consistent resonance of her work reflects the timelessness of her writing.
"Blind Man's Zoo," the group's critically acclaimed 1989 release, exemplifies the scope of Merchant's artistic vision. Unvarnished treatments of corporate negligence, colonialism, teen pregnancy, and the Dust Bowl were given a pop polish.
Her broad exploration of historical injustices doesn't reflect a meandering search for substance, but rather a concerted effort to make a single point.
How would she sum up her lyrical work in three words? "Balance of power," Merchant says without hesitation.
But writing about shameful aspects of American history doesn't make her anti-American. "I'm really proud [to] live in a country where these things can come to light," she says.
The marriage of graceful pop and affecting lyrics she mastered with the Maniacs enabled Merchant to strike commercial success with the launch of her first solo effort, "Tigerlilly." Though it was the soft underbelly of the grunge beast that sprang up in the early 1990s, the album's messages of loyalty and personal growth have endured longer than the music culture that made it so popular.
The masterly follow-up, "Ophelia," delved more deeply into Merchant's understanding of female identity. Though her songs emphasized joy, gratitude, and female empowerment, Merchant recognizes that women confront deeply rooted stereotypes when they wrestle with the concept of beauty. "When I go to museums, I see my body in 18th-century paintings so frequently," Merchant says. "And it's voluptuous, and it's shapely, and it's beautiful.
"But when I pick up Vogue magazine, I don't see my body." It doesn't help that music celebrities like Britney Spears are "pushing young girls into a mold of precocious sexuality that I find really scary."
Merchant doesn't see women as victims, though. "The temptress is an archetype that women use themselves," she says. "They're complicit in the perpetuation of it as a myth." Still, she says, women - at least in the industrialized world - have the power to reinvent themselves.
As her album cover photo shows, Merchant is doing just that. The album is a personal account of womanhood, one probably influenced by her polarized religious upbringing. Her mother, a Roman Catholic, married an atheist when Merchant was 11. "I was definitely a believer," Merchant says with a laugh, "and then my stepfather ... told me it was all bunk."
"I think it was good for me to have both perspectives," she says. "I look at Jesus Christ and the story of his life on this earth as the model of perfection...."
But she's wary of fanaticism, "when religion has been taken to the absolute extreme, and it becomes evil instead of a faith that should shelter us from evil."
For now, Merchant is content with her life. But she's always looking for new projects. "I'd like to live the life of a poet and painter - that's my second life," she says.
Many would say she's living that life now.
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"Motherland" (Elektra) represents new maturity in Natalie Merchant's musicianship - which isn't always a good thing.
"The most obvious shift in this record is the use of traditional American music as inspiration," Ms. Merchant says. It's a shift she hasn't quite mastered.
Her voice, once thin and shrill, ripened in the 1990s, but is now deep and husky. It gives her credibility to sing the blues with guest star Mavis Staples on "Saint Judas," but tends to strip away her clarity. Introspective lyrics have been replaced with straightforward sentiments that seem presciently written for a post-9/11 environment. But the poetry's been lost.
Poor execution mars Merchant's welcome use of unorthodox instruments (accordion, saxophone, and banjo), and international influences on songs like "This House is on Fire" and "The Worst Thing." She says the new songs are "translating very well live," but her band, once mellow and lush, sounded downright sleepy and unpolished in a recent concert.
A largely self-taught musician, Merchant is proud of the progress she's made in the past 10 years and says the songs on "Motherland" qualify as among her best. Some of the songs do show new poise and command, but the album lacks vision.
'Motherland' shows Merchant knows where she comes from and what she is, but it's not quite clear that she knows where she's going.