Although Natalie Merchant insists that "I don't have the gift of the prophecy/Telling everybody how it's gonna be," the imagery in "This House Is on Fire," the opening cut of her third solo record, is prescient. As Middle Eastern violin filigrees float over reggae rhythms, she intones, "There's a wildfire catching in the whip of the wind that could start a conflagration like there has never been." Merchant - who finished Motherland on September 9th - doesn't have to be a seer to be solemn. Her newly husky alto lends even more gravitas to an artist who has never lacked it. "Henry Darger" is a delicately orchestrated ode to a posthumously appreciated outsider artist, and "Saint Judas" uses a Mavis Staples vocal to meditate on an exhibition of photographs of post-Civil War lynchings. "Golden Boy" features one of her most beguiling vocals yet. There are times you wish Merchant could have added a little more lightness to the mix, as she does on the creeping, teasing "Put the Law on You." But more often than not, Motherland makes a strong case for its serious-mindedness.
(RS 888 - January 31, 2001)