On paper it looks like a mess. A mess that has been done before. For lyrical source material, take a bunch of words written by a cast of poets both famous and not. Set the poetry to music. Then, record the songs with a huge assortment of musicians, again both famous and not. We're talking over one hundred players here…a year in the making. Though there have been a few counterexamples, pop music history is littered with failures of this sort. It sounds like another train wreck in the making.
I'm glad to report that my skeptical side was completely wrong. Not only does Leave Your Sleep work, it just might be the best thing that Natalie Merchant has ever done as a solo artist.
Ms. Merchant says that the words and stories of the poets evoked their own musical themes. What again seems like a potential problem — a batch wide-ranging styles, tending to work against a cohesive statement — is spun into a glorious victory. Yes, there are tunes with Celtic flair alongside orchestra-draped waltzes, country & bluegrass, jazz, reggae, klezmer, R&B, Cajun, Balkan, and Chinese folk. In the end, Merchant's musical ideas and their inspired realizations draw it all together. She does this with help from the likes of the Ditty Bops, Hazmat Modine, the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, members of the New York Philharmonic, Wynton Marsalis, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and many others.
The poetry employed here originates from the famous (Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson) to the fairly obscure (William Brighty Rands…though hey, this is the United States. Aren't all poets obscure?). Unknown poets are even represented here by a handful of lullabies.
It's quite obvious that Merchant's great love of both words and various musics drove her to make this statement. This isn't to say that it's all straight-backed-chair serious. Not at all. Waltz's such as the (beautifully orchestrated) "Equestrienne" are counterbalanced by the jaunt of tunes like "Calico Pie" and the klezmer strut of "The Dancing Bear." What's so great about this recording is that Merchant makes it all sound very natural. She may be visiting genres that are new to her catalog (Merchant has said her musical interests go far beyond what we've heard from her so far), but there's not a hint of discomfort in her new surroundings.
With all of these songs spread over two discs, it's really tough to pick out standouts (let alone favorites) as there are just too many. If I had to choose, I'd feel obligated to mention: the modern pop (by way of The Beach Boys) sounds of "It Makes A Change," the Eastern vibe of "The King of China's Daughter," the country blues of "The Peppery Man," the slinky reggae of "Topsy-turvey World," the swanky, old-world jazz of "The Janitor's Boy" (thanks Wynton), and the strut of "Bleezer's Ice Cream." There's a single-disc version of Leave Your Sleep available. Don't do it. Yes, there's a lot of material here, but all of it is essential.
On first listen, I was struck by how this recording held together, despite its varied styles. It's like these melodies and poems had been waiting around all of these years for Natalie Merchant to notice them. "It's about time," they all said, "Let's tell a story."