On her first solo album, Tigerlily, Natalie Merchant may be free of 10,000 Maniacs, but she hasn't shed the dourness of spirit that made her a heroine for alternative-rock eggheads. On one song, a man mourns the death of his wife, who ''suffered long in hours of pain''; in another, a patient saddled with an unspecified freakish handicap lies in a hospital bed and tries to find inner strength. Other songs are laced with themes of unrequited love (including one that lasts seven years) and overall moroseness only Merchant could write a tune called ''Carnival'' but have it depict the planet as a fun house from hell. As always, Merchant sings in the tone of a humor-challenged puritan; in the one exception, ''Beloved Wife,'' she sounds on the verge of tears.
With its unadorned, keyboard-based arrangements, Tigerlily is more sparely produced than anything Merchant did with 10,000 Maniacs, yet the starkness works in her favor. The Maniacs' breezy folk rock was often at odds with Merchant's somber testimonials. The hooks on this album are subtler, and ultimately Merchant sounds both more natural and affecting. As with the Maniacs, the New Age-y mellowness can still backfire: On ''Jealousy,'' Merchant is the world's least convincing dumped suitor. And her penchant for literal-minded moralism reaches a new low in ''River,'' a paean to the late River Phoenix that devolves into an antimedia screed. But even as you wish she'd lighten up, you can't help but admire Merchant's uncompromising vision. B+