As far back as her days with 10,000 Manaics, Natalie Merchant sought a more catholic (note the small "c") approach to her writing. But within the confines of her alt-rock star persona, these gestures tended to come off as awkward.
(You can’t convince me "Jealousy" is a convincing soul performance.)
But on her first album in seven years, Merchant finally does what she should have to achieve that more eclectic sound — ditch rock entirely.
Leave Your Sleep is a sprawling collection of poems set to Merchant’s music, which veers from reggae to klezmer to Celtic music and beyond. Employing more than 100 musicians, Merchant lets the needs of the verses dictate the direction of the music, not the other way around.
The two-disc set is a gamble — double albums usually indicate a lack of editing. Merchant’s tendency to be maudlin didn’t make that prospect so appealing.
But not a word on Leave Your Sleep belongs to Merchant. Instead she set poems by other authors to music, and the results are refreshing. Sure, Merchant can spin a story through verse better than most, but an undercurrent of social consciousness pins the subtext.
On "Bleezer’s Ice Creaam", "The Janitor’s Boy" and "If No One Ever Marries Me", what you hear is what you get — Merchant taking on the perspective of the authors’ characters — an ice cream shop owner, a woman in love with the janitor’s boy and a spinster.
The volume of material also prevents Leave Your Sleep from getting mired in its length. The Klezmatics puts their stamp on "The Dancing Bear". "Adventures of Isabel" puts bluegrass next to the Celtic romp of "The Walloping Window Blind". "The Land of Nod" includes a chamber orchestra, while the preceding track "Griselda" comes closest to a radio single.
Some experiments are more successful than others. "The King of China" sounds a bit too obvious, and I wonder if "Topsy-Turvey World" could have worked better as dub. And does the world really need another Brian Wilson tribute ("It Makes a Change")?
Leave Your Sleep ultimately succeeds by providing a ton of music, unified by Merchant’s signature voice. The genre whiplash and Merchant’s willingness to stretch further than she ever has keep the album from getting monotonous.