Ophelia was Natalie Merchant's second solo album and to my mind her best. While Tigerlily has some truly lovely moments it was a bit tentative and inconsistent, Merchant seemed to have went all out to make a small, close knit album- possibly not totally in her comfort zone outwith a band environment yet. By the time she made Ophelia this seemed to be something she had moved past and this album became something special and beautiful.
The songs are almost universally beautiful, starting with the title track. Many of the songs feature a degree of orchestration that buoys them and elevates them, acting as one of the album's main strengths. The opening track introduces the various Ophelias whose images adorn the album sleeve- a daring cannonball, a mafia moll- over a fantastic rhythmic drumbeat and escalating organ sound. Its attention grabbing and promises much.
From there excellent song after excellent song follow. Break Your Heart sounds, well, heart-breaking with an understated and mutedly beautiful trumpet underlaying the whole sound. My Skin is a song about the sort of love that's so intense that it is damaging and self destructive and the music carries the concept and Life Is Sweet marries its title to a song that has a gorgeous string arrangement and lyrics that suggest the sweetness must be earned. These pale compared to King of May, a stunning elegy for the everyman who deserves a cardboard crown and a hole in the sky when we "raise a loving cup" to his long life. It's a funeral song so uplifting that it really is proof that life is indeed sweet and it's a song that I want played at my own funeral. The other untouchable highlight is Frozen Charlotte where Natalie Merchant and Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission sing an amazingly fragile sounding song of love, loss, need, and abandonment. Its swirls delicately around these two deeply different voices and sounds absolutely tragic.
Ophelia is not quite perfect as Kind and Generous is too saccharine (many of the tracks on this album are beautifully judged exercises in the bittersweet, this song is just too sweet). I'm sure it's the sort of songs that will be played at a thousand weddings but that's just not going to reach out to me. There's a very mild slump in the final third, but its too mild to be a genuine concern and is soon forgotten when the final hymn When They Ring the Golden Bells lifts us back to a special place and the purely instrumental Ophelia Reprised closes the whole thing in beautiful style.
This is one of my favourite albums of all time. Through the years I have actually bought it on multiple occasions as copies have been stolen, or borrowed never to return, and I would buy it again tomorrow. Its an album with many brilliant songs but works so well when played as a whole that I can't under-sell its coherency. Beautiful songs, well judged guest appearances, lush production, and a genuine confidence from its writer make this a treasured part of my record collection and one I'll always go back to.