Natalie Merchant: Leave Your Sleep

Merchant's seven-year hiatus results in a sumptuous double-disc collection of poetry set to music.

Natalie Merchant

Leave Your Sleep

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2010-04-13
UK Release Date: 2010-04-12
"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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.