Natalie Merchant – Carnival

Year :
10,000 Maniacs / Billy Bragg / Florence + the Machine

New York City summers are like a special kind of sociology class. As the heat reaches Die Hard With A Vengeance levels, people ultimately self-select into two camps. The hunkered down, the sick and elderly, the financially comfortable, or the plain lazy take shelter indoors. Everyone else gets the hell out of the house.

This includes the sort of people you don’t see from September to May. And in the 90 degree heat you aren’t exactly seeing everyone at their best. Social graces are the first to go. Bare stomachs overtake waistbands and sweat drips from every shirt. The sound of flip-flops hitting pavement rattles through the stale air. Your traveling companions are the hidden homeless jockeying for precious stretches of shade beneath overhands and in alcoves, and the mentally ill staggering from corner to corner. On top of that, everything smells like boiled garbage, lending a constant layer of unpleasantness to even the quiet moments. It throws your senses out of balance. On a walk down 14th Street in Manhattan this evening (en route to relative comfort of a movie theater), I found myself struggling not to gawk—it was like I had crawled out of a cave and was seeing human beings for the first time. It reminds you of your own distance from others and, hell, that certain kinds of people even exist.

Natalie Merchant taps into this exactly in Carnival and the music video provides a perfect entry point. At first glance, the video’s premise seems almost painfully obvious for a song with the lyrics “All the cheap thrill-seekers / The vendors and the dealers / They’re crowded around me.” But, like the track itself, there are a few layers at work. It’s not simply that Ms. Merchant is wandering the streets of New York City—she’s also photographing the faces she sees. She’s in midst of the carnival and yet more of a passive observer. It’s a tight visual tip-off that walk through the “Carnival” is actually an isolating experience, not some whimsical stroll that a casual listener might first imagine. As the chorus arrives, she sings,

Have I been blind
Have I been lost
Inside myself and
My own mind
By what my eyes have seen?

The, ahem, picture starts to come into focus. Even more profoundly, the experience moves from one of a feeling of isolation and separateness to one of awareness, realization, and questioning. The connection is there between the viewer and the subject, though it’s a painful one. The bluesy groove of “Carnival” provides the perfect backdrop that sense of waking up and reflecting on the very events that unfold before our eyes. The guitars snarl just enough to lend an emotional punch and the bassline propels the song forward on an even, slow burn.

Natalie Merchant often gets pained with the unfortunate label of “Adult Contemporary,” a term reserved for the soundtrack to a dentist’s waiting room. But in this case, I would say it’s something of a badge of honor. Carnival is meticulously crafted, richly layered, and above all else thoughtful. It’s for refined tastes.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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