“The most delightful toy in our possession”
A Review of
Leave Your Sleep.
By Natalie Merchant
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
[ In this online issue, we bring you a change of pace:
reviews of two recent literary-themed albums.
This is one of them and
Bill Mallonee’s Ti Jean is the other… ]
Leave Your Sleep.
2 Audio CD’s, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Let me put all my cards on the table before we begin: I own every Natalie Merchant (and 10,000 Maniacs) CD that there is; I could quote lines, sing along, or beat you in Name That Tune. Yes, I have a music crush, so this might not be the most fair or balanced reporting, though I will try to refrain from dealing in obscure references or geeky trivia, and instead describe why I’ve come to appreciate Merchant’s musicality so much.
That said, Leave Your Sleep, Merchant’s most recent release, is an impressive two-CD production in which she adapted 26 poems to music, and performed with over 100 musicians; the complexity of this project could cause a listener to reflect on a host of considerations – the translation of the written word into song, the contextualization Merchant gives each poem musically, as well as this album’s relationship to others by Merchant, such as 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, which is similar in that it gathers together a collection of folk and traditional songs.
Leave Your Sleep’s liner notes introduce this collection of song as “parts of a long conversation I’ve had with my daughter during the first six years of her life,” which is certainly reflected in a slew of young heroines; she continues:
“It documents our word-of-mouth tradition in the poems, stories, and songs that I found to delight and teach her… I tried to show her that speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes. I gave her parables with lessons in human nature and bits of nonsense to sharpen her wit. These poems speak of many things: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment. Grave or absurd, these are the things that make a childhood, that time when we wake up to the great wonders and small terrors of this beautiful-horrible world of ours.”
Drawing upon poetry as the source for her songs, then, continues a device Merchant has used before with folk songs, performing and often arranging new music for words that precede her, but have been preserved through written or oral traditions; often this means a translation for the first time from the written word into song and instrumentation, and certainly a re-presentation into a new musical context. As with The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Merchant sings new life into old forms, whether it’s the traditional “House Carpenter” ballad, or the ballad meter of poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s “Indian Names.” And it’s no wonder Merchant steeps herself in these poems and songs with marked social dimensions, as her own lyrics often tend towards what David Dark has recommended as a “seamless social justice concern… Human-interest pop.” I’m thinking of lyrics of “Poison in the Well” (O, they tell us there’s poison in the well / that someone’s been a bit untidy / and there’s been a small spill / not a lot, just a drop) or “The Lion’s Share,” a neat little 3-minute lesson in economic exploitation if ever there was one.
By bringing these poems out from books and history, Merchant reaffirms their significance, contextualizing them with her voice and a score of collaborating musicians. Many songs take on a musical style in concert with the content of the poem, or life of the poet; the aforementioned “Indian Names” (Ye say they all have passed away, / That noble race and brave, / That their light canoes have vanished / From off the crested wave / That ‘mid the forests where they roamed / There rings no hunter’s shout; / But their name is on your waters, / Ye may not wash it out) is performed with Joseph Fire Chief on Native flutes, drums, and rattles; Charles Carryl’s “The Walloping Window Blind” becomes a regular sea shanty with the Irish band Lúnasa; and Nathalia Crane’s “The Janitor’s Boy” is a ragtime number with Wynton Marsalis and the Ditty Bops.
And there are plenty more variations on instrumentation and style, many of which introduce entirely new configurations for the poems, such as the Klezmatics’ influence on Albert Paine’s “The Dancing Bear;” or the reggae beat of William Brighty Rands’ 1868 “Tosyturvey-World.” Lest anyone think this a random stylistic choice, consider Merchant’s own “National Education Week,” which has the same cool tempo paired with somber lyrics (History’s most intolerable famine has clutched our global tranquility / with the lives of children).
There are other worthwhile comparisons between Merchant’s arrangements on Leave Your Sleep and previous recordings, such as Edward Lear’s fantastical “Calico Pie,” resonating with fiddle, banjo, and dulcimer, has overtones of The House Carpenter’s Daughter. And, to cite a favorite, Merchant’s treatment of E.E. Cumming’s “maggie and millie and molly and may” sounds not unlike “Verdi Cries” from the late 1980s’ In My Tribe; comparing these two songs could be fruitful to consider more closely the nature of the poems brought together in this project, and Merchant’s arrangements.
Cummings’ original poem and Merchant’s song both describe small intimate details which add up to a scene of figures at a beach, but with both it is in the particular interactions of each character with their place that make the whole. Compare the opening lines from Cummings:
maggie and millie and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
with those from Merchant’s “Verdi Cries”:
The man in 119 takes his tea alone.
Mornings we all rise to wireless verdi cries.
I’m hearing opera through the door.
The souls of men and women, impassioned all.
Their voices climb and fall; battle trumpets call.
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing.
He will not touch their pastry
But every day they bring him more.
Gold from the breakfast tray, i steal them all away
And then go and eat them on the shore.
In each, a few concrete actions stand in for entire characters, suggesting entire personalities in simple gestures and carefully chosen words. In Cummings’ poem – significantly for Leave Your Sleep – the young girls each discover the world around them in distinct ways, each with a particularizing interaction with a discrete object – a shell, starfish, “a horrible thing,” and a stone; in much the same way, Merchant’s characters crystallize around tea and opera music.
Likewise, the last stanza from Cummings:
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
Holidays must end as you know
All is memory taken home with me
The opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.
The structure of each is such that there isn’t a verse-chorus-verse-bridge or regular meter that might be expected, and thus as songs, they present themselves differently to one listening, as each line presents something new. What’s more, Merchant’s arrangements of each are quietly haunting, both inflected with a string arrangement, and a subdued piano in “Verdi Cries.”
One last favorite of mine from Leave Your Sleep is Mervyn Peake’s “It Makes a Change,” a delightfully nonsensical poem (There’s nothing that makes a Greenland whale / Feel half so high and mighty / As sitting on a mantelpiece / In Aunty Mabel’s nighty.) which Merchant orchestrates into a glorious fanfare along with Medeski, Martin and Wood.
Leave Your Sleep is a wonderful blend of poetic lyricism, Merchant’s stunning voice, and multiplicity of musicians. Certainly, for suckers like me, it’s a welcome project that affirms the thoughtful, thorough and generous musicality of Merchant; it extends the reach of this poetry into new contexts and brings together dozens of talented musicians around a single project, for an elaborate, beautiful collection of songs, anchored by Merchant’s voice, but any one of which blends all of these elements together.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com