Natalie Merchant concert at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor last night knocked me over. It offered a push into the past and future with kisses on my forehead.
Her new album, Leave Your Sleep, is a collection of songs based on English language poets such as Ogden Nash, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, e e cummings and more. You can read the original poems online and pair them to the music.
The songs, translations of the written words, offer new life and interpretations of the work. Merchant honored the original authors with photographs (it is rare to see a PowerPoint at a live concert!) and briefly described their bios.
Merchant collaborated with musicians, as well as poets, to create these new pieces. The music dances between traditions and styles: bluegrass, jazz, reggae, chamber, Celtic, Chinese and more. (Read the NPR piece for more or her website (under Read). We know her voice from earlier, super-famous (less risky?) albums and it is even fuller here and in person.
The recent New York Times article describes the beginnings of the album:
The project had its beginnings in the poems Ms. Merchant read to her daughter, Lúcia, whose birth in 2003 led to what Ms. Merchant has called a “maternity leave” from her pop career.
“I narrowed the field to poetry that related to motherhood or childhood, because that’s the world I was living in,” Ms. Merchant said. “Some people see that as a valid place of exploration and others just think it’s trivial — oh, another female artist has gone off and had a kid and wants to tell us about it. But it’s about being human to me.”
Luckily, “Leave Your Sleep” is not the kind of perky singalong, lullaby collection or instructional ditties that are generally classified as a children’s album. Its songs touch on somber topics, like war and death, as well as more whimsical ones. Through the years Ms. Merchant has generally stayed serious and thoughtful, but “Leave Your Sleep” often has a twinkle in its eye.
Last night was magical. Her album is magical. I know, “magical” is a terrible adjective that I would edit out of a poem and remind myself that it is a broad stroke to describe something of our world. But here, yes here, it fits. The music brings us to another land. One that is beautifully built on poetry and music.