Though it's possibly a bit mean to suggest that Natalie Merchant has the hallmarks of a reformed junkie, it's true to say that while strident-bordering-on preachy in her 10,000 Maniacs years, these days she seems to have gone cold turkey from her own words.
Her last solo release was 2003's low-key set of folk covers, The House Carpenter's Daughter, and Leave Your Sleep is also, to a degree, a covers record. What it isn't, however, is low key. Quite aside from being a double record, it by all accounts really did take six years to make, and features over 100 musicians, with the lyrics all poems about childhood culled from the breadth of the 19th and 20th century British and American canon. It is, inevitably, a very mature record, and fans expecting Maniacs-style folk rock or even Tigerlily-size choruses had best think again. But it's a long way from boring: you can feel the time spent on it, with near enough every track soaked in some distinct, lush musical trapping, be it bluegrass, reggae, warm woodwind, sprightly folk, southern-fried blues and, in the case of Bleezer's Ice-Cream, 1950s-style advertising jingle (admittedly adapted from a Jack Prelutsky poem that parodied the form).
What's astonishing is how cohesive it all is: from the fire-eyed, Celtic-tinged chamber music of Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience (Charles Causley), through to the stark, troubled strings of the closing Indian Names (Lydia Huntley Sigourney), Leave Your Sleep never feels over-extended. The sheer ravishing beauty of the arrangements, combined with the tasteful, organic aesthetic (no synths here), prevents things ever jarring, and Merchant's voice flows constant throughout, supple and hard as silken steel. Indeed, everything sounds so good from a purely musical perspective that the record perhaps doesn't showcase its lyricists as well as it could. It's hard to really see that it cumulatively says anything about childhood, except perhaps that it's the lurid bits that stick with you–Charles E. Carryl's faintly traumatic The Sleepy Giant is a piece of grotesque that's hard to ignore. But most of these poems simply sink into the verdant whole–200 years of lyrical and musical history, washing beautifully by. --Andrzej Lukowski
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