Out on April 13th on Nonesuch Records, Natalie Merchant's new album - her first in seven years - is a double-disc opus featuring 26 poems adapted into songs by Merchant and a diverse posse of 130 (!) musical collaborators. The results are simply stunning; Merchant has produced in Leave Your Sleep a beautiful and entrancing album that surpasses expectations. A full review to follow soon at Wears The Trousers [www.wearsthetrousers.com; check out the revamped website if you haven't already], but, for now, here's a quick track-by-track guide to the record.
1. “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” - Leave Your Sleep opens with one of its most spell-binding tracks, a haunting folkified rendition of Charles Causley’s elliptical evocation of the passage from childhood to adulthood. Inviting accompaniment of guitar, whistles, pipes and fiddle, and a caressing yet commanding vocal from Merchant, only make the chilly conclusion all the more moving. Superb.
2. “Equestrienne” - A restrained and elegant treatment of Rachel Fields’s portrait of a young equestrienne.
3. “Calico Pie” - Edward Lear becomes the co-author of a bracing country hoe-down here.
4. “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” - Against spry jazz piano and trumpet, Merchant wittily intones Jack Prelutsky’s litany of imaginative ice-cream flavours.
5. “It Makes A Change” - Prime Mervyn Peake surrealism is appropriately adapted as exuberant Beatles-esque whimsy.
6. “The King of China’s Daughter” - Merchant’s charming collaboration with the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York could be a lost outtake from The King and I. None the worse for that.
7. “The Dancing Bear” - Merchant klezmatises this Albert Bigelow Paine piece to vibrant and dramatic effect. Play this one at Jewish weddings when the bride’s absconded.
8. “The Man in the Wilderness” - Mother Goose as folk ballad archetype.
9. “maggie and milly and molly and may” - Building gently to an off-kilter bridge, a particularly fine interpretation of e. e. cummings’s touching evocation of four girls' discoveries at the seaside.
10. “If No One Ever Marries Me” - Against gentle acoustic guitar and chuckling banjo, Laurence Alma-Tadema’s heroine dares to envisage a destiny beyond convention.
11. “The Sleepy Giant” - Merchant in Dietrich-vamp mode on this Charles E. Carryl piece. If only all giants sounded this seductive.
12. “The Peppery Man” - An earthy and robust reading of this Arthur Macy poem.
13. “The Blind Men and the Elephant” - An enticing folk-troupe take on John Godfry Saxe’s moralising fable.
1. “Adventures of Isabel” - Ogden Nash’s account of an intrepid heroine effortlessly besting her foes becomes a gleeful Cajun stomp.
2. “The Walloping Window Blind” - Merchant and her crew render Charles E. Carryl’s delightful absurdist account of life on board the titular vessel as an exuberant folk shanty, complete with “heave-hos.”
3. “Topsyturvey-World” - Following her previous dabbles with the genre, Merchant offers an unlikely but surprisingly successful reggae-ization of William Brighty Rands’s riddling children’s rhyme.
4. "The Janitor's Boy" - Merchant swings: a pleasing, loose and jazzy reading of child prodigy Nathalia Crane’s poem.
5. “Griselda” - Eating is a motif on many of Leave Your Sleep’s tracks. “Griselda,” written by Eleanor Farjeon, builds from a gentle piano opening into a full-blown R&B work-out complete with blaring horns, electric guitar, organ and sax (plus a superb vocal from Merchant) that brilliantly conveys its anti-heroine’s voracious appetites. The results, appropriately enough, are delicious.
6. “The Land of Nod” - A sublime widescreen rendering of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic of escape through dreams, this sounds like a gem culled from a lost Disney soundtrack. But against a sweeping and soaring string arrangement that would make a hundred Broadway composers green with envy, Merchant’s tremulous vocal is beautifully understated: delicacy itself.
7. “Vain and Careless” - A spare but intense and dramatic treatment of one of Robert Graves’s lesser-known poems.
8. “Crying, My Little One” - Pipes and strings predominate on this tender rendering of Christina Rosetti’s moving statement of maternal comfort and protection. The song bathes the listener in warmth, and begins a sequence of tracks dealing with parent-child relationships.
9. “Sweet And A Lullaby” - A cheerful folky rendition reminiscent of Silly Sisters Tabor and Prior at their jauntiest.
10 “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing” - A sweet and gentle, but remarkably un-twee, acoustic-guitar-and-pipes treatment of this classic nursery rhyme.
11. “Autumn Lullaby” - Harp and woodwind, and pastoral imagery; Merchant suggests Joanna Newsom with less affect (but not less effect) here. The mood is intimate but not exactly comforting; indeed, the fate of the child “asleep in a gown of white” feels unsettlingly ambiguous in this rendition.
12. “Spring and Fall: to a young child” - The parent/child sequence concludes with a haunting, lushly orchestral treatment of this deeply moving meditation on mortality, one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s greatest poems.
13. “Indian Names” - With dramatic and mournful strings and chants, Merchant evocatively conjures the spirits on this powerful piece of writing by Lydia Huntley Sigourney, which finds the Native American presence indelibly inscribed on the North American landscape.