''This album captures so many magical moments, the best times I''ve ever had as a musician,'' declares singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant of ''Leave Your Sleep,'' her ambitious, two-disc Nonesuch debut. Merchant, celebrated solo artist and one-time voice of 10,000 Maniacs, took on what could have been a daunting task: she''s adapted 19th and 20th century British and American poetry - well-known and obscure works, anonymous rhymes, children''s lullabies, all of it timeless material full of direct emotion - and fashioned new songs from these words. Among the poets she chose were Robert Graves, Charles Manley Hopkins, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The project, five years in the making, has clearly had a liberating effect on Merchant. Never has she sounded so free-spirited, so full of musical adventure, whether backed by small jazzy combos or elegant chamber ensembles. The tracks she''s created range from exotic (''The King of China''s Daughter'') to earthy (''Peppery Man''), soothing (''I Saw A Ship A-Sailing'') to swinging (''The Janitor''s Boy''), mischievous (''It Makes A Change'') to moving (''Spring and Fall''). The string arrangements are particularly stirring, recalling Joshua Rifkin''s now-classic work on Judy Collins'' ''Wildflowers.'' There''s plenty of child-like wonder, counterbalanced with grown-up sophistication. Says Merchant, ''It was an exciting, new approach for me to work with rhythm and rhyme schemes created by other writers. The poems inspired vastly different musical settings with their themes that ranged from humorous and absurd to tragic, romantic, and deeply spiritual. Over the course of three years I wrote 40 of these poem-songs and 30 were eventually recorded.'' Merchant co-produced ''Leave Your Sleep'' with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, and one of the creators of the eclectic Red Hot charity series. Over the course of a year''s worth of exhilarating, musically shape-shifting sessions, they drew upon no less than 125 musicians from the varied worlds of, among other things, Cajun, country, jazz, chamber music, R&B, Celtic, and reggae. The revitalized Merchant explains, ''I called on old friends and approached many new musicians I only knew through admiring their work... The sessions were recorded in live ensemble workshop settings that captured pure and authentic sounds played with incredibly fresh and spontaneous energy.'' ''Leave Your Sleep'' is an inspired return for Merchant, her first studio album in six years - an effort long awaited by her considerable fan base. It also marks her 25th year as a uniquely successful major-label artist, one whose work has consistently enjoyed equal measures of commercial and critical success. Though she has regularly lent her talents over the last few years to the many nonprofit causes she supports, Merchant has actively returned to the concert stage in recent months, previewing material from ''Leave Your Sleep,'' on a series of dates in England and continental Europe. A full U.S. tour is being planned for summer 2010.
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