Recordings: Trajectories in Music
I found myself in a Toyota with my cousin at the wheel. We sped along toward Ketchum. Natalie Merchant coming through the speakers from cassette. I knew her music, and 10,000 Maniacs, but "These Are Days" had new meaning for young teen me, my mom having sent me to Idaho for the summer to learn watercolor with my aunt, the freedom as easy as the breeze from the open window.
Later in life, a fiancée surprised me with birthday tickets to see her by the Charles River. The concert was small, outdoor, folding chairs, sparsely attended. It's still my favorite concert, on that dripping August Boston evening. Merchant was fantastic and fluid, playing just for me. The freedom and love in her music mirroring the hand I held and the opportunities we were seeking East.
Natalie Merchant's latest is Keep Your Courage. Her unmistakable voice and easy joy spills forth throughout, with lush orchestration and crystalline production. Her duets with Resistance Revival Chorus Director Abena Koomson-Davis are some of the finest on the album. Mythic in nature from "Come On Aphrodite" to "Narcissus" and "Tower of Babel", with Decemberist-esqe lyrics like,
You're a tree with a broken limb, picked up and thrown by the wind
You're the gale's deafening pound, you're the boom and you're the howl
You're hail stoning the deck, you're the ship about to wreck
You're Blackbeard on the bow with a fuse in your mouth
And you sail on, the eye of the storm
(from "Eye of the Storm")
Keep Your Courage is a beautiful, sonically engaging, ultimately feminine, lyrical and loving album. And I continue to feel her singing directly to me.
I am digesting that despite–or even because of–age and trouble and hard times, art can mature. The words and music can return and spill out, even after they don't for a while.
I discovered The National, rounding my third decade, and figuring out my bearing. I was drawn to the angsty minor chord post-punk sounds, and of course Matt Berninger's devil-may-care delivery in deep baritone, on cuts like "Lemonwood" (High Violet) and "Sea of Love" (Trouble Will Find Me).
When I was forty, in the middle of the pandemic, Berninger released Serpentine Prison, his first solo release. There is quality in maturation. His thoughtfulness now worn on his sleeve, not muttered between the lines. Like many artists working through those bad times, his work became more human, and honest, and gentle, with "Distant Axis" at the top of my picks. I mark eras of my life by certain artists, and Matt's one of 'em.
The latest full-length from The National is First Two Pages of Frankenstein. After struggling to write and self-reflect, Berninger and bandmates rallied and produced a stellar, softer, melodic collection of ballads and anthems with notable guests, testifying to the band's omnipresence in current music. Sufjan Stevens' sounds color the lead-off track "Once Upon a Poolside"; Phoebe Bridgers harmonizes on "This Isn't Helping" and the waltzy "Your Mind is Not Your Friend"; and even Berninger is a Swiftie, with Taylor joining the band on the excellent (and very Swift) "The Alcott".
Through works by Matt Berninger and The National, I am digesting that despite–or even because of–age and trouble and hard times, art can mature. The words and music can return and spill out, even after they don't for a while.
Noah Brann Linsday is a host of Open Air, and The Folk Show on JPR's Rhythm and News Service. He's also a writer, poet, dancer, cook, bartender, artist and printer.