Throughout the years Natalie Merchant has been many women, a barefoot folkie helicopter dancing around a stage, a PSA doyen preaching to the converted, and a musical earth mother. She grew up in 10,000 Maniacs, and its not surprising that when she produced Tigerlily it was as un-Maniacal is you could imagine..... or so I thought at the time. Then she gave birth to Ophelia, her latest baby, and boy does she not sound like her sisters. Ophelia is a lush, orchestral monument to Merchants own feminine vanity, but while it could have been a true folly it stands as her greatest triumph to date. From the opening intonation of Ophelia (wherein Merchant play acts herself as all the things she's not been yet), to the closing intonation of, well, Ophelia Reprised, this is Merchant throwing her heart and soul into a musical project in a way she hasn't seemed to since In My Tribe. Only "Kind and Generous" and "Effigy" grate, the former because of the Hallmark sentimentality and the latter because even on an album this good there is limits to the acceptibility of pretension which are reached at Tibetan translations. The earnest beauty of tracks like "My Skin" and the fierce passion of "Thick As Thieves" stand out, and Merchant and Karen Peris certainly give it their all on "When They Ring The Golden Bells". Peris is also present for one of Ophelia's (and possibly mErchant's career's) finest moments. "Frozen Charlotte" is a love song of astonishing beauty. The tenderness of both women's voices is touching, while the gentle patience that Merchant's character displays to the hurt Peris is almost heart-breaking, it is worth the cost of the album alone. Retrospectively, Ophelia eclipses In My Tribe to my mind as Merchant's best work- and the guests all bring their own touch to the songs. But this is Natalie Merchant's show, she is suffragette, whore, demi-goddess and Human Cannonball. She is quite simply magnificent.