It's been a long time since a hardcover book has won over my eyes and hands over a computer screen of some kind. I am usually yoked to my Macbook, iPhone, or HD TV, so it was quite a surprise to me that a CD lyrics book measuring four-inches by four- inches would take a hold and not leave my captivity for an hour and forty minutes.
I'm sure it was well in her intentions to have a CD lyric book be this kind of treasure, but I'm not sure she ever realized the state the digital age has wrought on my generation. Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep has brought me back to my earliest music memories of record players, LP covers, cassette players and complete music immersion. I felt as if I had travelled back to my parents family room in 1986 putting a record on, feeling the gritty grooves of black vinyl, and listening to the brief static foreplay as the music slowly spun in.
Digital music has tried to create this kind of interactivity with varied success. Apple created iTunes LP, eMusic has lists and lists of exploration buttons, artists' website splash and flash video across your web browsers. Most of this is impressive, if easily ignored by mundane music -- and that is where Natalie Merchant changes the conversation.
In what is perhaps the most purposeful collection of songs I've heard in over a decade, Merchant has managed to create an album that requires no explanation, but leaves you seeking one. Leave Your Sleep consists of two discs filled with 19th and 20th century poems set to music. It took five years to develop with over 100 hundred musicians contributing to the oft-folk inspired sounds.
Merchant has always been a successful songstress with a unique, evocative voice and style. I've never been a committed fan, though I've rarely skipped her tracks on the radio or iTunes shuffle. However, as she describes in the lyric book, "It is the most ambitious project I have ever attempted or even dared to conceive," I find myself drawn to the concept for it's sheer audacity. Merchant takes on the challenge of bringing the written word to song — a feat tried by many — but rarely successful.
Leave Your Sleep brings nuance to unfamiliar poems, and Merchant's song-writing has never been stronger. You won't find pop hits like Jealousy or Carnival, but those tracks would be woefully out of place. What you do find is a musical journey, a journal wretched out of ink and into music, alive in the process of translation. I found myself listening intently while pouring through these very visual poems.
I went from line to line, poem to poem, song to song, and found each carefully crafted and enjoyable. The pages echoed in my ears, and Merchant's voice brought a new dimension to these written works. In poems/songs such as The Peppery Man, Merchant pulls on different genres to create a beautifully orchestrated track that is easily accessible, meaningful, and lasting — no small accomplishment in today's music scene.
I won't go into detail of the literary works or their meanings on Leave Your Sleep — that is best left to each listener and their own biases. There is much to explore, and Merchant lets you listen to a great album while doing so. This collection deserves at least an hour of your undivided attention. Turn the screen off, dust off the CD player, and turn these four-inch by four-inch pages as Merchant weaves centuries of words into a beautiful album worth every un-digitized note.