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Music Review: Natalie Merchant – Leave Your Sleep

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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."

About Mark Saleski

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/josh-hathaway Josh Hathaway

    Never was a huge Merchant fan and I can see all the potential trainwreck moments vividly but you’ve made a compelling case here, Mark. Very well done.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    It really is a lovely album.

  • Colin Davis

    This album sends me back in time. Natalie has done a wonderful job translating the poetic verses into song.

  • A J Ohar

    Pardon me if this sounds superficial, but that’s a great photo of Natalie on the cover. She’s 46 … I wish more women half her age looked like that!

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    s’ok a.j., i thought the same thing!

  • Rob

    At first listen I was overwhelmed by so much beauty! I dare say: this is the best album in years! Great review.

  • Dy

    Gorgeous music. I have played this album in toto and in pieces since its release…and it just gets better. Brava, Natalie!

  • …..

    You think this is better than her early work? You must be nuts.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i do and i am, though those are independent things.

  • mike engler

    I used to be a big fan of Natalie Merchant until I went to the concert this week in Ann Arbor. This was truly the worst performance I have ever seen or herd. It was a cheap power point presentation of her new jibberish, she did not perform one original song, half the audience was in shock just laughing to themselves

  • Disappointed in Saratoga

    Just went to NM’s concert in Saratoga last night. I was disappointed with the production (unprofessional and rambling) and felt misled with its promotion. Fine if an artist wants to explore new ways to express themselves. But next time disclose to would be patrons before they buy tickets that you’re going to divert from your great music and experiment with different art forms.

  • Disappointed in Atlanta

    Just went to Natalie Merchant’s concert last night in Atlanta. If you are a huge Natalie Merchant fan, as I am, you will be bitterly disappointed – she plays for a solid hour and a half with this new Leave YOur Sleep thing- cheap power point and no original words – crushingly boring. At least she ended the show with some of the songs we all know and love.

  • http://www.ficklepeople.com TJ

    No offense #8 but I do think this is definitely better than her earlier work.

  • Ron

    Love’s conversation can be fettered neither by poetry nor by any lack of poetry. Love’s song dwells only where it must, conversing as need be. Natalie Merchant has a divine voice, and I have listened to “The House Carpenter’s Daughter” and “Leave Your Sleep” with infinite care, and been pleased. I do not know 10,00 Maniacs, although I have heard some of their music.

    I waited many years to hear “Leave Your Sleep.” I wonder whether Natalie will come to realize that to love wisdom one must understand poetry, but that poetry, without the love of wisdom, understands neither love, nor wisdom, nor itself. I know that. Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick did not. Two children found me, and conversed with me, for over five years. They loved me as their own Ron. They made me find what they needed in the world, and within myself, to love them as they needed to be loved. We forged, together, a conversation that is immortal.

    Love fears no number, neither 11, nor 13, nor 1081. Love’s band can not be removed, as was Aquino’s wedding ring, for it is necessary. Were Ms. Merchant to consider, carefully, Miranda Cosgrove, she would find she contains all the finest poets have sought, in vain. She is a song unlike any other. Call it CLAM. Call it Rose. Call it, “What’s up with the Roxy, Rial?”

    Joy to you, Rose.

  • jerry

    Why do musicians bore an audience with an hour of new songzzzzzz. Play the hits or lose your audience. Common sense.

  • jerry

    Natalie puts on such a great show is all I’m saying.

  • sandra

    I have listened to natalie merchant over 20yrs now.have enjoyed both maniac and solo albums.leave your sleep?…a masterpiece! delighted when,for the first time, i had the chance to see natalie play,which was in edinburgh 2010 as part of “leave your sleep” tour and can honestly say it was amazing.the album has played in my car on constant replay since and still hear something i hadnt noticed before,rewind to check,smile…drive on.thank you natalie.