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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"This album captures so many magical moments, the best times I've ever had as a musician," declares singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant of Leave Your Sleep
, her ambitious, two-disc Nonesuch debut. Merchant, celebrated solo artist and the one-time voice of 10,000 Maniacs, took on what could have been a daunting task; she's adapted 19th and 20th century British and American poetry--well-known and obscure work, anonymous rhymes, children's lullabies, all of it timeless material full of direct emotion--and fashioned new songs from these words. Among the poets she chose were Robert Graves, Charles Manley Hopkins, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The project, six years in the making, has clearly had a liberating effect on Merchant. Never has she sounded so free-spirited, so full of musical adventure, whether backed by small jazzy combos or elegant chamber ensembles. The tracks she's created range from exotic ("The King of China's Daughter") to earthy ("Peppery Man"), soothing ("I Saw A Ship A-Sailing") to swinging ("The Janitor's Boy"), mischievous ("It Makes A Change") to moving ("Spring and Fall"). The string arrangements are particularly stirring, recalling Joshua Rifkin's now-classic work on Judy Collins' Wildflowers
There's plenty of child-like wonder, counterbalanced with grown-up sophistication. Says Merchant, "It was an exciting, new approach for me to work with rhythm and rhyme schemes created by other writers. The poems inspired vastly different musical settings with their themes that ranged from humorous and absurd to tragic, romantic, and deeply spiritual. Over the course of three years I wrote 40 of these poem-songs and 30 were eventually recorded.
Merchant co-produced Leave Your Sleep with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, and one of the creators of the eclectic Red Hot charity series. Over the course of a year's worth of exhilarating, musically shape-shifting sessions, they drew upon no less than 130 musicians from the varied worlds of, among other things, Cajun, country, jazz, chamber music, R&B, Celtic, and reggae. The revitalized Merchant explains, "I called on old friends and approached many new musicians I only knew through admiring their work... The sessions were recorded in live ensemble workshop settings that captured pure and authentic sounds played with incredibly fresh and spontaneous energy."
Leave Your Sleep is an inspired return for Merchant, her first studio album in seven years--an effort long awaited by her considerable fan base. It also marks her 25th year as a uniquely successful major-label artist, one whose work has consistently enjoyed equal measures of commercial and critical success. Though she has regularly lent her talents over the preceding years to the many non-profit causes she supports, Merchant actively returned to the concert stage, previewing material from Leave Your Sleep on a series of dates in the UK and continental Europe.