Seven years in the making, Natalie Merchant’s newest album, Leave Your Sleep, is her most ambitious project yet. As lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs in the eighties, Merchant wrote her own lyrics about utopian communes, and faith healing materialism, set to her folk-pop voice. With Leave Your Sleep, Merchant juxtaposes nineteenth Century British and American poetry with unexpected Mother Goose rhymes and her own music. The project was conceived when Merchant began reading to her daughter to teach her about poetry.
Merchant told the audience, “I wanted to prove that children have a deep understanding, and to give them credit.” Her album is focused on poems that are for or about children, and encompasses lullaby, fantasy, and nonsense with topics ranging from war, death, and whimsical adventures.
Merchant’s sold-out performance was scheduled Monday night at the Wang Theatre, but was moved next door to the Wilbur Theatre. She explained to the audience, “I wanted a more intimate experience,” which only enhanced her performance; no one complained.
The night was divided between new releases from Leave Your Sleep and songs from her extensive catalog. Before performing each song, she introduced background information about the authors, while displaying collected cover art for each poem in a slideshow. She opened with Charles E. Carryl’s “The Sleepy Giant,” whose career transitioned him from a businessman (stockbroker) to a published children’s author. Her eight-piece band drew upon woodwinds, strings, and acoustic guitars to complete collaborative arrangements that spanned moods, genres, and continents. They provided Eastern backing on “The King of China’s Daughter,” transformed into a klezmer band—borrowing a Jewish folk sound—during “The Dancing Bear,” and captured the jazz swagger of “The Janitor’s Boy”—whose author, Nathalia Crane, published her first book of poetry at the age of ten.
After the song, Merchant says, “Ok, everyone, pay up! I’m taking my hair down,” and shakes out her coifed bun to reveal bouncy locks of curls. Dressed in a navy blazer and black skirt and tights, caught up in the melody and words through hand movements and dancing, Merchant has an elegant stage presence only seen in truly experienced artists. When not performing, the vocalist engaged into conversation with the audience and waiters.
During “Bleezer’s Ice-Cream,” she had a sing-off with an audience member and joked, “You don’t know the lyrics.” Merchant herself looked at the rapid-fire lyrics resembling a tongue twister. After singing the “The Land of Nod,” Merchant said the song would be perfect for someone with a Boston accent, and handed the microphone to a man sitting in the front—pleasing the audience.
The folk-based music and her intimate voice were the main attractions. They ran the gambit of calming lullabies with songs like “Crying, My Little One,”—to melodramatic Celtic jigs such as “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” and whimsical cabaret blues with crowd favorite “The Peppery Man.” Merchant also included a darker poem, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child;” a haunting poem written from the perspective of an adult attempting to explain death to a young child.
Nearing the end of the performance, band members left the stage until only the two guitarists remained. Merchant and the rest of the band returned with a birthday cake for the acoustic guitarist. The band and audience joined in singing “Happy Birthday,” and Merchant performed a duet with the birthday boy.
The songs span the childhood experience, from joy and hilarity—with Edward Lear’s “Calico Pie”—to disillusion and horror with the haunting tales of Charles Causley’s “Nursery Rhymes of Innocence and Experience.” The range of emotions covered on Leave Your Sleep fits Merchant’s themes of mother and childhood, and serve as a means to examine life as a whole.