Leave Your Sleep
Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch Records, 2010)
In those last few brick-and-mortar record stores still out there, you may find Leave Your Sleep in the children’s section. It is, after all, a collection of children’s poetry, classic and obscure, set to music. But this is not the dumbed-down kiddie-cult purveyed by Raffi and his ilk. For one thing, Merchant’s poetry selections include the likes of e.e. cummings and the 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. As Merchant said in an interview on public radio, she sees the album as “a thematic piece about childhood. And basically, that covers the experience of being human.”
Since the early 1980s, Natalie Merchant’s dusky alto has been a mainstay of the indie rock scene, first with 10,000 Maniacs and now as a solo artist. Along the way, she has enjoyed the occasional hit, but she’s mostly avoided the beaten pop-star path.
In 2002, when her major label contract expired, she did a self-released album. Then she had a child and disappeared from the business for seven years. For the last five of those years she was chipping away at this mammoth, 26-song project that ended up involving more than 100 musicians (including Wynton Marsalis, the Fairfield Four, The Klezmatics, and a fair-sized chunk of the New York Philharmonic).
The time spent on the project shows. True, a good half of the 26 tunes are in orchestral lullaby mode, and enough of that will put even the adults to sleep. But Merchant is not afraid to rile the kids up with a New Orleans jazz version of “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” (by contemporary poet Jack Prelutsky); foot-stomping, old-time Appalachian renderings of Edward Lear’s “Calico Pie” and Ogden Nash’s “Adventures of Isabel”; or a reggae take on the Victorian-era “Topsyturvy-World.”
My personal favorite is a bluesy rendering of “The Peppery Man,” complete with bottleneck guitar and the vocals of the Fairfield Four. This music might even move the feet of Arthur Macy, the obscure and long-dead New England poet who wrote the words.
This article appeared in the July 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 7, page 42).