Style: A complete genre mash-up, dropping any trace of familiar Merchant
Top tracks: "The Peppery Man" "Topsyturvey-World" and "Indian Names"
Before the rise of popular music, songwriters frequently used existing poetry as the lyrical content of their music, but rarely do we see it done these days. This lost art has been revived by singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant on her first new album in seven years. Merchant chose poems for this CD because she wanted to experiment musically; each poem created a different mood, and therefore required a different sound.
Merchant calls Leave Your Sleep "the most elaborate project I have ever completed or even imagined. Nearly seven years ago I set out to create a piece of work I hoped could capture the universal experience of childhood through poetry and music." She tackles an extraordinary range of styles on this 2-disc, 26-song compilation, including folk, Celtic, R&B, jazz, chamber music, and even traditional Chinese.
Merchant's poetry choices span from British Victorians, to early- and mid-20th century America writers, to contemporary poets; the most well-known are Ogden Nash, E.E. Cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robert Graves. Merchant spent five years researching and writing for the album, reading biographies of the poets, searching archives, contacted heirs, executors, or the poets themselves in what she says was "an attempt to know more about my co-writers." An 80-page booklet that comes with the album gives more details on the poets and Merchant's research.
Collaborating with more than 100 musicians—including The Wynton Marsalis Quintet, The Klezmatics, and members of the New York Philharmonic—in a recording process that took over a year, Merchant has created a genre-mixed masterpiece. With the help of The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, Merchant turned "The King of China's Daughter" (by British poet Edith Sitwell) into a beautiful tribute to Chinese musical harmonics (listen here). She then transitions smoothly into a polka song set to the words of "The Dancing Bear" by American writer Albert Bigelow Paine. Somehow amidst the ever-changing musical scenery, this album stays connected, flowing effortlessly from song to song.
The second disc brings even more surprises. Merchant turns William Brighty Rands' 19th century poem "Topsyturvey-World" into a reggae jam full of lush harmonies and creative horn arrangements.
You won't find much "typical" Merchant on this album. A couple tunes like "Maggie and Milly and Molly and May" and "Griselda" are more like what we are used to hearing from Merchant, with sliding vocal lines and a piano foundation. But most songs present an entirely new way of hearing her voice, showing off her versatility and a creativity rarely seen or heard. Leave Your Sleep showcases Merchant's smarts, musicality, and patience to develop something truly special.
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