No matter how revered a career a popstar might have had in the past, and no matter how loyal a fan following they enjoy, there are times when their manager, their record company or even their own site’s message boards should stand up and shout ‘No!’ at the top of their collective voices.
Sadly with Natalie Merchant’s first album in howevermany years Leave Your Sleep, either no-one had the gumption or, if they did, she didn’t take any notice.
Exhibit one: concept albums. Oi, Merchant, No!
Exhibit two: covers albums. Oi, Merchant, No!
Exhibit three: setting your favourite poems to music. And fiddledy-dee twee folk music at that. Merchant, we say again, No!
As if that’s not bad enough on its own, there are 26 tracks on this double album, plus an 80 page booklet just in case (if you haven’t yet lost the will to live) you want to read in minute detail why our Nat thought any of this was a good idea. Mercifully, as if to prove she hasn’t completely lost her grip on reality, the CD version is a 16 track ‘abridged version’. Thank god. Though it comes to something when the people involved in releasing the album first time round all agree that the director’s cut needs to be shorter than the real thing.
This is of course the curse of having had an acclaimed career and enough fans to be able to do more or less what you want. As the singer with 10,000 Maniacs, an ’80s indie band who managed to enjoy a few minor hits on both sides of the Atlantic, Merchant has gained enough credentials to be able to explore her creative muse. But this should be no excuse for not bothering to write any new songs and instead nicking words from an eclectic list of poets encompassing Ogden Nash, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear and Robert Graves, as well as some more obscure ones you probably won’t be moved to explore further.
The music she has chosen to back the lyrics ranges from Irish-tinged gypsy folk, with fiddle solos that go on too long, to more cowboyish riffs – like Kitty, Daisy And Lewis without the post-irony. It’s sweet in places, definitely not designed to hurt the ears of little children, and here and there the odd track is actually worthwhile – Vain And Careless and The Man In The Wilderness come along together at just the right time (ie. when their 13 predecessors have made you about ready to hit the OFF switch).
By far the album’s main fault is that it goes on far too long. There’s just no need for 26 tracks of this. As a curiosity – a four-track EP with perhaps even a tour behind it – it might have worked. As a boxed set extravaganza deserving of deluxe treatment, it leaves you asking one question: Why?