virtualDavis

ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.
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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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Natalie Merchant Sings Old Poems to Life

Spectacular! Emotion-bending. Destiny changing… Have you watched (listened to) Natalie Merchant’s TED performance? She performed a sampling from her new album, “Leave Your Sleep”, the culmination of six years spent adapting 19th-century children’s poetry — some obsolete and all but forgotten — to music.

Merchant’s seven-year sleep has blossomed into this double album of poems set to music that traverses the whole range of American vernacular, from Bluegrass to Cajon to miniature chamber music, and beyond.”(Financial Times)

Merchant awakens Charles Edward Carryl’s “The Sleepy Giant” observing, “Little boys do not like being chewed.” The album includes poetry from Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash and Edward Lear. In the video she performs Nathalia Crane’s “The Janitor’s Boy”, E.E. Cummings’ “maggie and milly and molly and may”, Laurence Alma-Tadema’s “If No One Ever Marries Me” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: to a young child”. Each sung poem is fresh, inviting and peppered with poignant asides. A comment beneath the YouTube video captures Merchant’s beguiling potency:

“Here she goes again! The angel of sound, rewiring more minds. Once she gets in there, you’ll never get her out again. Just shut it out! Don’t listen! If you do, she’ll make you more human! Run!”

Returning to the stage for an encore, Merchant introduced her final rousing performance: “I’d like to thank everybody… everyone that blew my mind this week. Thank you.” Then she launched into a rousing rendition of “Kind & Generous”, so rousing that she actually interrupted the song and asked the audience to sit, to listen, to consider.

“I still have two minutes… That’s innovative, don’t you think? Calming the audience down… I’m supposed to be whipping you into a frenzy and I… that’s enough… Shhh.”(Natalie Merchant)

So, destiny changing? A stretch, maybe, but Merchant is one of so many voices leading me back to poetry recently. I’m following the siren call, wondering where I’m being lead. And maybe I’ll manage to squeeze in a Natalie Merchant concert along the way…

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