She may be pretentious and self-righteous (a friend refers to her as Natalie Matron), but to her credit, Natalie Merchant sticks like nontoxic, environmentally correct glue to her singular vision. At a time when many pop stars seem unnervingly normal or bland, she remains a genuine oddball, determinedly idiosyncratic. For instance, Merchant previewed Ophelia, her second post-10,000 Maniacs album, with a ''companion film'' in which she acts the roles (complete with dubbed-in Italian and Swedish accents) of seven different characters, from a Depression-era suffragette to a Mob floozy. (To date, the 23-minute film has been shown only to the media, but excerpts will be made available on Merchant's website this summer.) It makes very little sense and may be, in fact, borderline deranged, but what other multiplatinum pop act would even attempt such a thing?
Ophelia, the album, goes its own way with equal ferocity. Tigerlily, Merchant's 1995 coming-out solo debut, was starker and more austere than anything she had done with the Maniacs and, as a result, felt honest and heartfelt. Ophelia is more affluently produced, her swoons and sighs accompanied by layers of church-service organs, dashes of world-music vocalizing and Daniel Lanois' guitar, and more exotic percussion. Yet the mood is even more downcast than that of its predecessor. Other than Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, it's hard to recall a pop album in recent memory that's been so relentlessly somber. It may be the only superstar release this summer that won't spawn a Puff Daddy remix.
When she's down, it's hard to count Merchant out. At its most elegantly dour, which is about half the record, Ophelia conjures images of stately mansion living rooms with their curtains drawn, its forlorn narrators sobbing on couches. ''My Skin,'' with its sorrowful piano and cello and Merchant's melancholy delivery, feels like the bastard child of an R.E.M. ballad and the Titanic soundtrack. ''Break Your Heart,'' which picks up the beat ever so slightly, goes so far as to make a breezy hook out of the line, ''People ruthless, people cruel/The damage that some people do...it's enough to make you lose your mind.''
She's right, of course. But what was refreshingly solemn about Tigerlily grows oppressive on Ophelia. The culprits are Merchant's singing (that wide mouth of hers still tends to make mulch out of her lyrics) and production that often reduces the melodies to musical pea soup. The comforting ''Life Is Sweet'' (with her idea of a cheerful chorus ''Life is sweet in spite of the misery'') and the mournful farewell ''King of May'' have the sort of sturdy, folkish melodies that are her strength. But in both, she virtually fights to be heard against an overpowering string section. Other tracks, like the two-minute ''Effigy,'' feel slight or unfinished. Of course, a Natalie Merchant album wouldn't be a Natalie Merchant album without a dose of old-fashioned moralizing. As with Tigerlily's torturous paean to River Phoenix, Ophelia's ''Thick as Thieves'' is a humorless finger-pointer about ''the chaos of the millennium and the falling out of the doomsday crowd.'' Even the piano chords feel as if they're about to rap your knuckles.
For approximately four minutes, Merchant does break free: On the first single, ''Kind & Generous,'' she practically trips over herself in thanking someone for his or her benevolence and loosens up enough to indulge herself in a ''na na na na'' chorus. But Ophelia often takes on the feel of a chamber recital for post-Lilith Fair graduates. It makes you wonder whether it's time Merchant began listening to voices other than those inside her own peculiar head. B