Keep Your Courage is Natalie Merchant’s first album of original material in nine years. Between her deep involvement in New York’s anti-fracking movement, learning to be a documentary filmmaker, and reworking her past recordings, all while raising her daughter as a single mother, it’s safe to say she hasn’t spent these years idly. Additionally, just days before the world went into lockdown, Merchant suffered a serious, career-threatening health crisis of her own – after undergoing emergency spinal surgery, she lost her voice and the use of her right hand for nine months. The album is a product of all these experiences, but instead of feelings of bitterness or anger, Merchant embraces the need for love in all its various forms. Rather than explicitly referencing global events, she invokes mythic figures like Aphrodite, St. Valentine and Joan of Arc as symbols of courage. Keep Your Courage is comprised of folk and pop arrangements, but infused with the grand orchestral elements that have defined Merchant’s more recent releases – these elements allow for some very tender moments in the album while also contributing to the most climactic.
The album opens with two duets with Abena Koomson-Davis of The Resistance Revival Chorus. Big Girls is a song about sisterly love between women, which is mirrored by the chemistry between Merchant and Koomson-Davis. As the song unfurls with explosive strings and horns, she uses the image of a ship going down to call on us to stay strong through hardship: “Hold on, hold on!” The second of these duets, the unabashedly pop Come on, Aphrodite is a call to romance with all its passion and pain. At times the album takes a darker turn. For example, on Guardian Angel she inverts the idea of a guardian angel looking over her – perhaps this angel is simply ignoring her pleas for guidance. As the track transitions from innocent awe to desire for revenge, it erupts into a two-minute, grandiose Baroque instrumental.
While Merchant doesn’t explicitly reference global events of the previous years, there are undercurrents of a world in social and political turmoil. On the groovy and brassy Tower of Babel, one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, she references the titular biblical story to paint a picture of a society in discord: “This house is divided, see how we’re broken in two.” Hunting the Wren is the only track not penned by Merchant, a cover of a song by Irish folk group Lankum about the exploitation of women by violent men. Merchant never sinks into pessimism, however, always returning to the central idea of love as as something needed now perhaps more than ever. This is evident in Song of Himself, a song about poet Walt Whitman and his unwavering faith in a better America. Written around the time of the Jan 6 insurrection, Merchant looks to Whitman’s expansive love of America as she hopes for a more united country.
As the world is collectively coming out of the darkness of the pandemic, Keep Your Courage is a refreshingly optimistic reminder of the need for love in a divided world. Merchant’s songwriting has always been informed by her socially conscious worldview, but here she sings with a heightened wisdom and earnestness that’s the product of the hardships of preceding years. The final track’s closing line is a fitting summary of the album and a sentiment I’m sure Merchant hopes the listener will carry with them: “Love will win.”