Natalie Merchant. "Keep Your Courage Album."

Natalie Merchant’s “Keep Your Courage” gives me courage through tragedy

A review

If it was not already abundantly clear, Natalie Merchant holds a special place in my heart. So obviously, this review is going to be biased. If that doesn’t suit you, click away!

Let’s dive into Merchant’s newest material since her 2014 self-titled album. “Keep Your Courage” was released on April 14, and since its release, it’s been growing on me like ivy.

Album Background

This album is just…WOW! All expectations were blown out of the water. Especially after I found out that Merchant literally almost died and LOST her ability to play piano and sing for nine months. Anyway, I can’t get further without giving the album art some kudos. It’s a sculpture of Joan of Arc, and it’s distantly reminding me of an ’00s young adult series I read back in the day by Tamora Pierce.

The album itself, there is genuinely no way to describe what musical genre it fits into. It’s Americana roots, it’s jazzy at times, it’s Merchant’s tried-and-true folk, but it’s more than that. It’s a coupling of sounds that sound so amazing and eclectic. She even said in an interview with The Guardian that she doesn’t know what to call it.

If you’re a fan of Merchant’s more orchestral songs, there are beautifully arranged orchestrations featured heavily on the album and at many stops on Merchant’s tour, as she is playing with an orchestra. Every song on the album has well-written lyrics and storylines, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Merchant. What’s more, the album’s central theme is Love in its many forms.

“Big Girls”

I’ll highlight just a few songs in my review, but the first track on the album “Big Girls” features Musical Director of the Resistance Revival Chorus Abena Koomson-Davis’ heartwarming vocals and piano and horns. Koomson-Davis and Merchant sing an ode of perseverance to the audience, telling them to “hold on” and that “Big girls, they don’t cry.”

I didn’t realize it at first, but honestly, I needed to hear those words. There was a mass shooting in my hometown at a shopping center I have many memories of. Eight people were killed, and seven were injured. Even worse, young children were gunned down trying to enjoy a Saturday shopping trip. It’s been hard to cope, and those lyrics struck a chord with me (pun intended). The song has been giving me hope and solace in a time when I can find none.

“Sister Tilly”

I just can't believe that you're gone 
That you've gone so far away
Natalie Merchant sings on “Sister Tilly”

“Sister Tilly” is the third track on the album, and on my first listen, Merchant’s descriptive music made me picture Miss Frizzle from the magic school bus. I mean no hate to Miss Frizzle, but not who I wanted to picture on first listening. On later listens, that image shifted to all the kooky hippies I’ve had the privilege of knowing. (Oh, come on, we ALL know one. Your high school art teacher can count).

At its core, Sister Tilly is about losing that quirky person in your life, with beautiful lyrical callbacks to “pashmina shawls,” herbal teas, and “Mother Jones.”

Since the shooting, the song has morphed from a happy remembrance of all those ‘out-there’ people we know to one of goodbyes. It’s not a particularly sad song. In fact, the time signature changes halfway through, and it becomes very upbeat. I feel that the final song, “The Feast of Saint Valentine,” is the saddest song on the album, with its melancholic violins.

Regardless of the meaning you decipher from Merchant’s songs, it’s a musical masterpiece and sets high expectations for the rest of the album.

“Tower of Babel”

Okay, this is the only song on the album; I can’t laude for its lyrics. It’s fairly simple and describes division (Hmmm, looking at YOU, U.S. politics), but it’s one of my favorites on the album cause it’s just so damn groovy. This is where the jazz and America show strongest in the album.

The only songs I had trouble truly liking were “Narcissus” and “The Feast of St. Valentine.” Both are about Love and are beautifully recorded. But I think TFSV is just too melancholic for me to handle right now. Despite that, Merchant sings her true beliefs and observations on Love. It’s very raw and powerful. Additionally, “Narcissus” (there’s lots of Greek mythology symbolized in this album) is something I can’t personally relate to, as it’s a song about loving yourself to the point of narcissism.

Bonus ramblings: “Eye of the Storm”

If you can’t tell by my last name, I’m Irish. So I was fangirling hard when I heard Uillean pipes (The Irish pipes, NOT the Scottish Bagpipe) in the song. Once I googled the album, I was pleasantly surprised that the Irish folk group Lunasa contributed to the album. I’m happy to see Merchant’s been influenced by the Celts and happy to see some damn Irish pipes in something a bit more mainstream.

Merchant also does a haunting rendition of Irish band Lankum’s “Hunting of the Wren.” It sounds like something that could be used in a movie soundtrack after a huge battle ends.

Despite multiple listens, I still catch a new meaning in each song, and the orchestration is just phenomenal. Merchant wrote the majority of the album during the COVID-19 lockdown, so the orchestrations were all recorded separately and layered onto the tracks. For when the slower, more somber tunes on this album get you down, the impeccable horn arrangments by Steve Davis on later tracks bring you back up. I highly recommend this album, and it’s going on my “Vinyl Record List.”

“Keep Your Courage” is available on all streaming services as well as vinyl. Check out Merchant’s tour here.

Image Credits: Justin Higuchi .