“Leather-bound treasure books / Up to the ceiling / Gold spine upon spine”
—10,000 Maniacs, “Arbor Day”
Natalie Merchant has used her abiding bibliophilia to inform her songwriting from the inception of her career. Dating back to her 1980s beginnings with 10,000 Maniacs, she picked album titles like The Wishing Chair, a reference to a series of children’s books by Enid Blyton. The song “Arbor Day” from that album lovingly recounts the elaborate worlds Merchant escaped to within the pages of the books she loved: “The baron and his mistress / Dine in a fine banquet hall / As rebel insurgents / Plot in the attic space crawl”. So it comes as no surprise that Merchant should embark on a project like Leave Your Sleep, an elaborate and painstaking 2-disc album of poetry set to music that started out as a comparatively simple lullaby record.
Merchant took a break from recording after 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, to marry and have her first child, daughter Lucia. Leave Your Sleep‘s title is taken from a Mother Goose poem, and the idea for the album germinated in Merchant’s bedtime reading to her little girl. However, the simple act of setting favorite words to music soon grew into a much larger project that led Merchant to research the biographies of all the included poets—no easy feat when the bulk of them are unsung to say the least. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, anyone? William Brighty Rands? For every easily recognizable name on the album’s roster, like Robert Louis Stevenson and Ogden Nash, there are several more whose obscurity made it necessary for Merchant to contact the writers’ descendants in order to get information.
The CD packaging is sumptuous, including a beautifully hardbound booklet with lyrics, fascinating mini-biographies, and portraits of all the poets, as well as detailed credits for the 100+ musicians who contributed over a recording period of more than a year. Sonically, the album is all over the map, from the reggae of “Topsyturvey-World” to the ragtime-y jazz of “The Janitor’s Boy” and “The Blind Man and the Elephant” (longtime fans will note that this poem must have been Merchant’s inspiration for the 10,000 Maniacs album title and cover art for Blind Man’s Zoo). There are moments somber (“The Sleepy Giant”), reflective (“If No One Ever Marries Me”), and whimsical (“Bleezer’s Ice Cream” and “Adventures of Isabel”).
“It Makes a Change” comes courtesy of one of the more contemporary poets, Mervyn Peake, and the song reflects that with a shot of sunshiny 1960s pop. “The Dancing Bear” recalls Zorba the Greek, and there’s a bluegrass flavor to “Calico Pie”. For all of the eclecticism and the vast numbers of musicians involved, the overall effect is not hodgepodge or disjointed at all—Leave Your Sleep is a cohesive work, and it sounds very much like a Natalie Merchant album.
If your kids are anything like mine, they might scratch their heads at the songs on Leave Your Sleep—their tastes run more toward the poets Cyrus and GaGa than Cummings and Graves. But there is no sense of the insufferable and insulting elitism of someone like Gwyneth Paltrow, who would make this project a club over the head of all the inferior masses who haven’t raised their offspring on home-grown, hand-strained mung beans and read them obscure British poetry at bedtime. Natalie Merchant apparently does read her daughter such poetry. And she loves it so much that she was compelled to set it to music and share it with us, plain and simple. Is Leave Your Sleep precious? At times, yes, and on the last track, “Indian Names”, complete with Native American flutes and chanting, it is downright painful. But this labor of love (so exhaustively researched, so musically collaborative, so many years in the making) is not elitist or pedantic. It’s just beautiful and special.