In the opening shots of the documentary “Paradise Is There,” Natalie Merchant gives only a vague reason for re-recording “Tigerlily,’ her 1995 solo debut, 20 years later. “I think we all have some experience in our lives that we wish we could relive,” she says. “We think if we could retrace our steps and replay the events, the outcome would be different.”
The project is a do-over, but Merchant doesn’t make clear what she wants to do differently or even what she did wrong, if anything, in the first place. On the contrary, she recalls the creation of this era quite fondly. “Tigerlily” was made during a period of profound transition for the singer-songwriter, who had just turned 30 and recently purchased her first home, a rambling Victorian in the Hudson Valley. She had given her notice in jangle-rockers 10,000 Maniacs while they were recording their then-final studio album, “Our Time in Eden” (1992), the success of which prolonged the band’s life longer than she had anticipated with several more singles, tours, even an “MTV Unplugged” record.
The freedom of being out on her own was precious — something to be savored. Jettisoning her former band’s chiming indie-pop in favor of a leaner, more mature folk rock, “Tigerlily” established Merchant as a ‘90s alt-rock star and remains the most popular album of her long career. Still, there’s something to be gained from revisiting and rearranging these songs, if only to uproot the familiar sounds and melodies from her memory and make them new.
Like the album she covers, ‘Paradise Is There’ represents a transition for Merchant, who was tiptoeing back into the spotlight after many years away.
Instead of the small band she assembled at her new home to write the album, Merchant put together a new backing band for these anniversary performances, including a string ensemble. Together, they loosen these songs up quite a bit, making the outrage of “River” (about the media’s exploitation of River Phoenix’s death) and the dissonance of “I May Know the Word” all the more potent. Like the album she covers, “Paradise Is There” represents a transition for Merchant, who was tiptoeing back into the spotlight after many years away.
In 2014, she released a self-titled album, her first collection of original material in 13 years, and in 2017, she not only assembled a massive retrospective box set but also embarked on a tour called 3 Decades of Song, which reconsidered tunes from every corner of her catalog. The “Paradise” performances reveal a singer who had lost no intensity in her stage presence, whose voice may have gained a bit of texture over the years but whose sense of empathy in these songs felt more subversive and disarming in 2015 than it did in 1995.
In “Paradise Is There,” Merchant is less the subject and more a tour guide through the album, interviewing fans about their own connections to her songs — most notably a woman who describes the impact “Wonder” had on her twin daughters. Kate and Kelly Daley were born with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, a painful disease that produces constant wounds like third-degree burns. Merchant’s song reinforced their idea that the affliction gave them a unique perspective on life. There are few moments in any music documentary as moving as their mother grabbing Merchant’s hand as she recalls singing “Wonder” at the twins’ deathbed.
Perhaps that’s ultimately the reason Merchant wanted to revisit this album and why this period is so important to her. In 10,000 Maniacs, she had sung about big issues with a certain naivete that she might change the world. But “Tigerlily” demonstrated how her more intimate songs might change how we see the world.