The relationship between poetry and song lyrics has often been viewed as a vexed one. Do poems ever gain anything by being set to music? Can lyrics ever really cut it as poetry? Despite poetry’s acknowledged roots in the oral tradition, the two forms have increasingly been seen as distinct. Sam Leith sums up the similarities and differences this way: “Poetry and song – as the two main rhythmic uses of language – have the same origins and much in common. But that’s not to say they’re the same thing. Poetry…supplies its own music. The whole score for the experience is there on the page.” For Leith, as for many others, poetry and lyrics may “share an ancestor” but they are “not the same creature”; despite the obvious connections, the two forms remain, to misquote Maya Angelou, less alike than they are unalike.
Offering a very compelling case for the defence, Natalie Merchant’s magnificent new album Leave Your Sleep will likely add further fuel to these debates. For this ambitious double-disc project – her first new release since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter – Merchant has set twenty-six poems to music, drawing on the work of a variety of late-19th and early/mid-20th century British and American writers both well-known and obscure. Produced by Merchant and Andres Levin, the self-financed Leave Your Sleep was originally conceived as a lullaby record but broadened its scope throughout its development to encompass not only children’s verse, but also poems “about” childhood, as well as quite a few selections that move beyond that subject matter. Some fans have expressed disappointment that Merchant has not returned with an album of original songwriting after such a long hiatus: The House Carpenter’s Daughter, lest we forget, was a covers album of ancient and contemporary folk songs. But they can rest assured: Merchant may be working with other people’s words again on Leave Your Sleep, but the results still feel like a very personal artistic statement. It’s a true labour of love.
Merchant’s choice of material, which ranges from Christina Rosetti to Ogden Nash, Robert Graves to Mother Goose, is judicious, and its diversity is matched by the astonishing array of musical collaborators enlisted for the project, including Irish folk-group Lúnasa, The Wynton Marsalis Quintet, The Klezmatics, members of the New York Philharmonic, The Memphis Boys, The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, and Medeski, Martin & Wood. The sound throughout is organic and inclusive; the album skips across genres with consummate ease. Each poem is given a distinct musical identity yet the experience is remarkably cohesive overall; it’s unified by Merchant’s vision and the open-hearted generosity of spirit that characterises her best work. Though always sensitive to the individual rhythms and rhyme schemes of the original texts, Merchant doesn’t pickle the poems in aspic, or treat them with undue reverence. Her arrangements take risks with the texts, breathe life into them, have fun with them. No dry academic exercise, Leave Your Sleep proves to be a vibrant demonstration of what music and the human voice can do for the written word – and vice versa.
The record opens in spellbinding fashion with a superb folkified rendition of ‘Nursery Rhyme Of Innocence & Experience’, 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, connect the piece to Causley’s interest in the Ballad form, and only make the chilly conclusion all the more moving; the song seems to grow sadder and stranger with every play. Lúnasa’s contributions here and throughout Leave Your Sleep are exemplary: Merchant has described her sessions with the group as “the most fun and satisfying musical experience of my life.” But British folk is very far from the record’s only mode.
Some of the musical settings seem immediately right: the enticing, skittish jazz of Jack Prelutsky’s ‘Bleezer’s Ice Cream’, for example, or the rendering of Mervyn Peake’s ineffably absurd ‘It Makes A Change’ as exuberant Beatles-esque whimsy. Other treatments take the listener by (delighted) surprise. Albert Bigelow Paine’s ‘The Dancing Bear’ is “klematized” to zesty, dramatic effect. ‘If No One Ever Marries Me’ sets Laurence Alma-Tadema’s evocation of a destiny beyond convention to gentle acoustic guitar and chucking banjo. Charles E. Carryl’s ‘The Sleepy Giant’ finds Merchant in Dietrich-vamp mode, while ‘The Blind Men & The Elephant’ sounds like a travelling folk troupe having a very good time en route to John Godfry Saxe’s ever-relevant moral. (This is, by some margin, Merchant’s most playful album to date.)
The second disc continues the eclectic approach. ‘Adventures Of Isabel’, Ogden Nash’s account of an intrepid heroine effortlessly besting her foes, becomes a gleeful Cajun stomp. William Brighty Rands’s ‘Topsyturvey-World’ harks back to Merchant’s forays into the reggae genre with 10,000 Maniacs. A sepia-toned, jazzy take on child prodigy Nathalia Crane’s ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ swings seductively. ‘The Land Of Nod’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s paean to escape through dreams, sweeps in like a gem culled from a lost Disney soundtrack, the grandeur of the soaring string arrangement beautifully offset by Merchant’s understated vocal. Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Griselda’ builds into a full-blown R&B work-out, with blaring horns, electric guitar, organ and sax brilliantly conveying its protagonist’s voracious appetites. (Eating is a motif throughout the album.)
Robert Graves’s ‘Vain & Careless’ is spare but intense, like chamber music from the court of Henry VIII. With delicate pipes and strings, Christina Rosetti’s touching statement of maternal comfort and protection, ‘Crying, My Little One’, bathes the listener in warmth, and begins a sequence of tracks dealing with parent–child relationships; a swelling orchestral rendering of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s meditation on mortality ‘Spring & Fall: To A Young Child’ concludes that sequence spectacularly before the album closes with a plangent take on Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s remarkable ‘Indian Names’. Backed by chants and mournful, dramatic strings, Merchant evocatively conjures the spirits on a piece that finds the Native American presence indelibly inscribed on the North American landscape.
Despite the mix of styles, the album deftly avoids pastiche; throughout, musical ideas which might seem overly literal or gimmicky on paper prove charming in practice: check out the “heave-ho” shanty-isms added to Carryl’s ‘The Walloping Window Blind’ or the ‘King & I’-esque take on ‘The King Of China’s Daughter’ for evidence. Charm may not be a fashionable attribute, and it’s certainly in short supply on the contemporary music scene, but it’s a quality that Leave Your Sleep possesses in spades.
Alongside the instrumental riches, Merchant’s vocals on Leave Your Sleep deserve further mention. It’s not every singer who could intone a line about the “Gulliby Isles where the Poohpooh smiles / and the Anagzanders roar” without sounding gauche, but Merchant throws herself into the nonsense verse with gusto, and then moves with equal conviction and elegance into the sensuality of ‘Griselda’ or the dolour of ‘Spring & Fall’. There’s no showboating to her vocals on this album, no straining for effect, just a palpable love of language and a commitment to embodying the characters and narratives contained in the verse. This restrained yet passionate and characterful approach finds her singing more expressively than ever.
Ultimately, then, Leave Your Sleep answers the question we came in with – do poems ever gain anything by being set to music? – with a resounding affirmative. While it’s possible that an album featuring songs about rubagub trees, talking bears and sleepy giants might initially put some listeners off, sustained engagement gradually reveals the breadth and depth of Leave Your Sleep’s humane vision. There’s something very moving about Merchant’s achievement in getting these poems to resonate across so many genres, to find Edward Lear newly established as the co-author of a bracing country hoedown, or to hear a Victorian children’s rhyme dynamically reggae-fied.
There’s a heartwarming sense of continuity to the album, of reaching through time to connect and collaborate, and it seems likely that these bold adaptations will send listeners back to the work of the poets with fresh insight and appreciation. It’s as if Merchant had dug into a treasure trove and was saying: “Look at all this great work that’s here to discover!” The artist’s delight becomes the listener’s delight. This entrancing record – Merchant’s own Songs Of Innocence & Experience, if you will – might just prove to be her masterpiece.
[Nonesuch; April 12, 2010]
Tagged natalie merchant