Thursday, April 15, 2010

Natalie Merchant — Leave Your Sleep

The first instance that Natalie Merchant was going to shed her image of a veteran Lilith Fair alt-popper in favor of a more rootsy, Americana inspired modern day folk interpreter was her 2001 T-Bone Burnett produced album Motherland. It was a strange musical stew, bordering on blue-eyed soul and dark blues rock. While not wholly successful, it was an eye-opener. In context of her previous work with the jangle band 10,000 Maniacs and her solo work which was basically sophisticated adult contempo pop, Motherland was a jolt. To follow it with what was basically her version of a folk standards album, the competent but strictly by the books affair The House Carpenter's Daughter, felt natural and, more than anything else, especially after even a cursory listen to her latest work, a warm up for her proper foray into folk, rag time, Tin pan Alley pop, classic Americana and just all around 'ole timey' music.

Leave Your Sleep is an inexplicably dense album; let's just get that out of the way right now. Through it's two discs and twenty six tracks, the way it jumps styles, the entirety of its lyrics being borrowed from late 19th and early 20th century poems and nursery rhymes and the revolving door cast of musicians backing Natalie up are all signs that would normally point towards an overproduced, cacophonous and catastrophic work. But, through the sweeping orchestrations, the exquisite attention to detail and, through it all, Natalie's commanding vocals —as strong as ever— make for one of the most unified artistic statements I've heard on record in some time.

Accompanied by (quite literally) a small book that details the history of the poets and anonymous words used for the album's lyrics, it feels less like just the next Natalie Merchant album and more like a well-researched statement of purpose for an artist that has reached elder stateswoman status. But to imply that the intellectual aspect of the album is more important to its success than the actual music is inaccurate. Because, musically, even though it's forever stuck in the past, it feels like, for the first time in Natalie's solo catalogue, a labor of love.

Which is not to say that it's inherently her best album or that her previous solo albums are boring, because besides neither statement being true, but Leave Your Sleep is such a departure musically from anything previous and was literally years in the making that it almost dodges comparisons to her previous work, just out of context. I know I'm making it seem like Leave Your Sleep is a total masterpiece, but it does have the essence about it of timelessness and an 'art over commerce' attitude that I just can't deny.

So why not a perfect score?

Well, it's twenty six songs and nearly two hours long. Inherently, perhaps, there's bound to be some less than great material here. And there are some things that are just out of place: things that sound like Motherland rejects that should have stayed that way ("The Peppery Man"), two misguided collabs with the Wynton Marsalis group that sound like caricatures amidst otherwise genuine portrayals of styles ("Bleezer's Ice Cream" and "The Janitor's Boy") and a downright bad attempt at reggae ("Topsyturvey-World"). Couple these sporadic anti-highlights with an album that sounds very intimate, but through the general intimidation of such a deep and lengthy set of songs, inherently prevents such intimacy and you get a mammoth task of a front to back listen every single time.

All that being said, I can't really say this could have been effectively cut down to a single disc album because it's highlights are in excess of the length of a single disc. Sure, I can name the songs I don't like right away, but if I were to list my album highlights, it would just about be everything else. It's fitting that disc one starts with "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience" and "Equestrienne" —two songs of orchestrated youthful, but restrained, enthusiasm— and disc two ends with "Autumn Lullaby", "Spring and Fall: To A Young Child" and "Indian Names" —three songs of elderly advice given through a melancholy hindsight view— because it reflects perfectly the maturity and wisdom that intent listens will reveal.

I expected to hate it, in all honesty. I'm glad I was wrong.

Such warm music. It's definitely something I'll be listening to and taking in completely for a long time to come.


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