The reflective melancholy singer Natalie Merchant brought to 10,000 Maniacs was often buoyed by the band’s uplifting music and her own occasional bursts of lyrical joy. After severing her ties to the band in 1993, she dropped the veil of smiles and put her disconsolate passions into a glass menagerie case that does little to leaven the mood. On her mesmerizing solo debut, recorded with three demure sidepersons (the rhythm section had been in the Wallflowers) and a handful of guests, Merchant applies her inimitable alto with a cool evenness that scarcely betrays the songs’ powerful emotions.
Merchant wades deep into her private sea of discontent on Tigerlily. There’s alienation (“Carnival”), destruction (“San Andreas Fault”) and loss (“Beloved Wife,” the breezy-sounding “River” [Phoenix]). In affairs of the heart, she offers dismay (“Jealousy,” in which — quite unlike Alanis Morissette’s coarse calculus — Merchant’s concern over her replacement extends to the woman’s reading habits), disappointment (“Cowboy Romance”) and disgust (the exquisite and haunting “Seven Years”). When she metes out glimmers of hope, it’s like dangerously potent medicine. “How I’ll often treasure moments that we knew, the precious, the few,” she sings over solo piano in “The Letter,” and it characterizes the album’s tenor as well. A master of mood as well as musical expression, Merchant has a rare understanding of harmony, especially the unique ways her heart and mind can work together.