Natalie Merchant’s Lyrical Poems

I’m back on The Lyrical Merchant again. After posting “Natalie Merchant sings old poems to life“, I jumped in my jalopy and zoomed off to Plattsburgh where I purchased her new album, “Leave Your Sleep“. I spent the afternoon meandering slowly homeward through the Champlain Valley, up and over Willsboro Mountain and finally into Essex. I took the most roundabout routes, was passed again and again by racier drivers, savored each velvety word Natalie Merchant sang.

Wow! This is a whole new chapter in this highly capable singer/songwriter’s career. Each song, each poem, opens up a new world, a new sound, a new rhythm. Her energy is so fresh and unique. She seems so comfortable in her skin, not straining to deliver something pop and flashy. Frankly this double CD album feels more like swinging by her home on a rainy afternoon and hanging out in sock feet and wool sweater and drinking tea (or an old Burgundy) and musing on life with an old friend. I don’t mean to suggest that the songs are all melancholy or low energy. Some are both. Most are neither. But they are comfortable and accessible. A funny description for a collection of poems since poetry can sometimes feel contrived, self-conscious or inaccessible. In a recent PBS interview Merchant talked about how she tackled the potential ungainliness of poetry in new album. (Watch the video.)

“Poetry comes alive to me through recitation. Even when I was working on this project… I couldn’t comprehend the meaning, and I couldn’t really understand the structure, the internal rhythms and rhymes… I would have to recite it or speak it, hear the words, and feel the words in my mouth.”

This idea of recitation, of speaking, mouthing, tasting poetry to understand it is helpful. I think of wine. To fully appreciate wine — its nuances, structure and narrative — you have to open the bottle, take a swig and slosh it around a little bit. Chew on it. See how it tastes and feels even once you’ve swallowed it. Sometimes the title of a poem or the label on a bottle of wine will mislead us, offer false expectations or undersell the contents. Sometimes a quick read or a swig with a mouthful of steak will get the job done. But why? To what end? Slowing down and biting off a verse of poetry, a mouthful of fermented grapes and letting it roll around in your mouth, slowly is what works best. Natalie Merchant seems to be reminding us of this. “A poet transports you to a place where you can experience what they saw, what they felt, what they smelled, what they touched,” she reminds us in this video and in every single song on “Leave Your Sleep“.

So why the dramatic departure? Well, she had a baby, became a mom, took a half-dozen years reprieve from the pop scene. Or maybe this album is a smaller leap than it initially seems. I’ll leave that judgment up to you.

“I started talking about the plan to age gracefully in this field fifteen years ago… I could see my future: I’m going to be shaking my booty when I’m fifty five. I need to come up with a way, and there’s so much music I’ve wanted to write and that I’m interested in that didn’t really fit into a pop album format. And now’s my time to start exploring that.”

If this is the first chapter of that exploration, then I am optimistic. It promises to be a great journey!

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