Throughout her career, Natalie Merchant has thrived on exceeding only her own expectations. Her last album, 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, rooted in American and British Isles folk traditions, was a stepping stone toward Leave Your Sleep. Where the former's songs were made of originals and covers, the latter marries them in sung poetry and original music from various traditions.
Co-produced by Merchant and Andres Levin, the double-disc Leave Your Sleep contains 26 new songs recorded live in the studio. She used the poems, anonymous nursery rhymes, and lullabies of 19th and 20th century British and American writers as source material and set them to original music. Among the authors included are Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mervyn Peake, Eleanor Farjeon, Nathalia Crane, and Robert Graves. Poetry is but one part of the story, however. Merchant composed music from across the genre spectrum: New Orleans swing on “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” (Jack Prelutsky) and Crane’s “The Janitor’s Boy” are performed by Merchant fronting the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra; the Yiddish folk music of “Dancing Bear” (Albert Bigelow Paine) pairs her with the Klezmatics; Peake’s “It Makes a Change” is performed by Medeski, Martin & Wood with a horn section; “If No One Ever Marries Me” (Laurence Alan-Tameda) is Appalachian backporch music with hammered dulcimer, banjo, upright bass, and guitar. “The Blind Men and the Elephant” (John Godfrey Saxe) is cabaret jazz played by Hazmat Modine with the Fairfield Four and the Ditty Bops on backing vocals. Stevenson’s “Land of Nod” is a gorgeous orchestral piece with a Celtic flavor. Speaking of Celtic, Rosetti’s “Crying, My Little One" is performed by Lunasa backing Merchant. Through it all, of course, is that voice, Merchant’s throaty trademark. It expresses itself emotionally, honestly, and precisely, without resorting to dramatic tropes to get meaning across. The album closes first with Hopkins' contemplative, melancholy “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” with a symphony orchestrated by Merchant and Sean O’Loughlin, and finally with Lydia Huntley Sigourney's haunting “Indian Names” by a string quartet accompanied by Joseph Fire Crow on Native American flutes, drums, rattles, and narrative, with chanting by Jennifer Kreisberg. It sends the set off much where it begins, illustrating poetry's ability to provide its own musical instruction, comfort, poignancy, and sense of wonder to the experience of everyday living. Merchant succeeds in spades; the extensive research and discipline pay off handsomely. Leave Your Sleep is easily her most ambitious work, yet because of that welcoming voice, it provides familiarity enough to gather listeners inside this world of sound.