A chilly Northern light shines upon the tracks of Ophelia (1998), Natalie Merchant’s second solo album. Of course, she betrayed a morose streak during her days with her former band, 10,000 Maniacs. Even by those standards, though, this is a darkly introspective effort. Merchant’s vocals suggest a young girl embodying the spirit of an old woman. There’s a reoccurring theme of thwarted souls crying out for understanding in these songs — tunes like “Frozen Charlotte,” “My Skin” and “The Living” smolder with subdued desperation. There’s a feminist strain as well, present in the title track, a panoramic evocation of remarkable women. Merchant shakes off the melancholy a little with “Life Is Sweet” and “Kind & Generous,” but any happiness seems fragile. Sonically, Ophelia is dominated by her Wurlitzer piano, its shivery tones adding to the winter-like mood. A hope of heavenly reward is offered when the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris joins Merchant on the 19th Century hymn “When They Ring The Golden Bells.” Still, this is definitely not the feel-good album of the 1990s. Ophelia is a work of pastel colors and bruised emotions, bathed in an often beautiful sadness.

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