Natalie Merchant: “Leave Your Sleep”
Natalie Merchant draws upon a nursery rhyme for the title of Leave Your Sleep, and in the context of the album, it feels like a warm invitation– a summons to leave the earthly confines of the mundane and to escape into a world of whimsy and imagination, which Leave Your Sleep certainly is. Those might seem like odd words to use in describing an album by Merchant– one of pop music’s most studious and bookish figures– but it is nevertheless appropriate here; indeed, given that this project is both inspired by and dedicated to the singer’s daughter, it isn’t at all figurative to say that Merchant has tapped into a certain childlike spirit, one that enlivens this expansive project– which puts children’s poetry, much of it from the Victorian era, to music that spans the globe and countless traditions, and encompasses two discs and an accompanying book– and elevates it above its academic origins. Actually, the spirit of this album is quite fitting, being less about study than of play, with Merchant sounding like she’s genuinely losing herself in these poems, enjoying creativity for its own sake, to the extent that she savors even nonsense syllables– because, after all, nonsense can often be fuel for the imagination– and allows the unifying themes of childhood and a love of fanciful poetry to provide the album’s structure even as individual songs veer wildly from traditional Chinese music to Irish sea shanties, from Dixieland swing to orchestral pop, and collaborations with everyone from the Klezmatics to Medeski, Martin and Wood. Do all of the musical conceits stem logically from the poems they’re matched with? Not at all, but that almost seems to be the point; Leave Your Sleep isn’t about drawing scholarly connections so much as it is about letting the imagination run free, making it a celebration of music, poetry, and play, and an album about childhood that’s revelatory for grown-ups, as well.