Natalie Merchant - Leave your sleep
If there's one word for Natalie Merchant's new record, her first in seven years, it's ambitious. This is evident before you hear a note. This is a 26 track collection, with expansive liner notes to match. A recording involving 130 musicians, and spanning a handful of musical styles, the immediate impression given is that Leave Your Sleep is the very definition of a musical labour of love.
This collection is quite a departure in all areas for Merchant, both in terms of musical styles and approach. All the lyrics are taken from poems on the theme of childhood, popular and obscure, serious and ridiculous set to music spanning genres from folk and bluegrass to jazz, all carried by Merchant's smooth vocals.
It makes sense in the context of both Merchant's personal life and musical career - the influence of her own recent motherhood is obvious, while musically this covers some similar territory to 2003's House Carpenter's Daughter.
This isn't a collection you can enter into lightly. If you're not listening to the lyrics, you're missing much of the experience. 'The Sleeping Giant', for example could pass by as a gentle waltz, but closer inspection reveals a playful tale of a child eating monster, now converted to eels as a substitute, while 'Griselda' finds her on more familiar musical territory, giving the story a jazz-tinged pop backing.
This is a record that deserves to be heard, easily equal in ambition to the likes of Springsteen's Seger Sessions project (to which it could reasonably be compared) or Jonatha Brooke's The Works (setting unreleased Woody Guthrie to her own music) - while it won't be to everyone's taste, hopefully it will find a wider audience.