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Natalie Merchant, "Natalie Merchant" (Nonesuch Records)

Natalie Merchant has never been one to pull punches.

From her start singing deceivingly jovial-sounding tunes about tough topics like child abuse and air pollution with seminal 1980s alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs through her 21 years as a solo artist, Merchant has made her mark as an unflinchingly honest artist.

That fearlessness continues on the self-titled and self-produced "Natalie Merchant," her first collection of entirely original songs in 13 years.

On the haunting "Giving Up Everything," Merchant sings about mercy killing her craving, giving up her "cursed search for meaning." Think of it as her version of John Lennon's "God."

Not everything is a downer. The opening track, "Ladybird," is a jaunty toe-tapper. But that's quickly followed by "Maggie Said," which begins with the line: "Maggie said dig one more shallow grave before I'm dead."

With her distinctive voice still in strong form as she enters her 50s, together with the lush backing of strings, piano, organ and the occasional woodwinds, Merchant creates a rich musical tapestry that transcends the typical vagary of pop music.



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