Thursday, March 24, 2011

Topsyturvey-World / It Makes A Change / The Sleepy Giant

Topsyturvey-World (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by William Brighty Rands)

If the butterfly courted the bee,
And the owl the porcupine;
If churches were built in the sea,
And three times one was nine;
If the pony rode his master,
If the buttercups ate the cows,
If the cat had the dire disaster
To be worried by the mouse;
If mama sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman was a lady,
The world would be Upside-Down!
If any or all of these wonders
Should ever come about,
I should not consider them blunders,
For I should be Inside-Out!


It Makes A Change (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Mervyn Peake)

There’s nothing makes a Greenland whale
Feel half so high and mighty
As sitting on a mantelpiece
In Aunty Mabel's nighty.

It makes a change from Freezing Seas,
(Of which a whale can tire),
To warm his weary tail at ease
Before an English fire.

For this delight he leaves the seas
(Unknown to Aunty Mabel),
Returning only when the dawn
Lights up the Breakfast Table.


The Sleepy Giant (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Charles Carryl)

My age is three hundred and seventy-two,
And I think, with the deepest regret,
How I used to pick up and voraciously chew
The dear little boys whom I met.

I’ve eaten them raw, in their holiday suits;
I’ve eaten them curried with rice;
I’ve eaten them baked, in their jackets and boots,
And found them exceedingly nice.

But now that my jaws are too weak for such fare,
I think it exceedingly rude
To do such a thing, when I’m quite well aware
Little boys do not like to be chewed.

And so I contentedly live upon eels,
And try to do nothing amiss,
And I pass all the time I can spare from my meals
In innocent slumber—like this.

Having a kid changes things.

I had a friend many years ago who was one of the most proper people I knew. She always displayed appropriate manners. Her diction was impeccable. She tolerated no impropriety on the part of others. (And, no, I have no idea why she liked me.) One day, in a fog of dismay, she told me that she had become, quite unexpectedly, pregnant.

I was thrilled. Not just for selfish reasons, i.e., that I soon would get a cute baby to play with that I would have absolutely no real responsibility toward. No, what I instead thought of was what transformative powers this child would soon have over its mother's life. Kids are not respecters of manners or propriety. They come into the world completely innocent of these cumbersome concepts. I immediately imagined my uptight friend in a variety of public settings with an adorable little baby who would be burping, farting, puking, screaming, drooling, picking its nose and pooping its pants, sometimes several of those things simultaneously. And that was before it even learned to speak! I figured this baby might just be the best thing that ever happened to her.

I've never had the notion that Natalie Merchant is the dour and humorless person that the media sometimes makes her out to be. This is probably because my first real exposure to her was in a live setting, where I found her to be quite funny and relaxed. Nonetheless, I don't think songs like the ones I am covering in this week's post would be likely to have entered Natalie's repertoire had she not become a parent. These songs, along with quite a few others on Leave Your Sleep, are alternately silly, absurd, gross and ridiculous. I love it.

I can see why a poem like Topsyturvey-World would easily appeal to a child. When we are children, we spend a good deal of time trying to figuring out what "normal" is. Anything that flies in the face of our youthful understanding is something to be delighted in. Not to mention the fact that this poem includes lots of preposterous imagery, like a pony riding his master and a cat afraid of a mouse. And, you know, that hilarious part about mama selling her baby to a gypsy. What the heck is with these Victorian poets and their baby-discarding?

Topsyturvey-World also well establishes the fact that Natalie Merchant is capable of sounding natural in pretty much any musical setting you put her in. She's flirted with reggae music in the past, but this song represents full-immersion in the genre. She commits to the style wholeheartedly and I find her pronunciation of "three" as "tree" to be particularly charming. Here's a quote from Natalie about the music for Topsyturvey-World:

“Sometimes I made references to the time period...But sometimes I contradicted the time period as in the case of Topsyturvey-World, which is Victorian. But to me the lyrics felt playful. They reminded me of '60s reggae music or ska or even calypso lyrics that are kind of nonsensical and lighthearted, so I took the poet out of his historical context and threw him somewhere else.”*

Natalie's musical trip around the world, and through time, continues on the song It Makes a Change, which has bit of a Beatles vibe to it. The first couple times I listened to the song, I kept trying to figure out what in the world this song was about. When I pulled out the Leave Your Sleep booklet and read the words to this poem again, and especially Natalie's biography of the poet who wrote it, it became much more clear. There is no point to this poem, it's just fun. And I, for one, am not far enough removed from my childhood to be prevented from enjoying the absurd gaiety of a whale wearing a nighty.

By far, though, the song on Leave Your Sleep that most exemplifies and embraces childlike silliness is The Sleepy Giant. The first time I heard this song, I had to hit the reverse button on my CD player. "Did she just say...Why, yes. Yes, she did." This poem/song is the funniest one on the album. It's so wonderfully dark. I especially appreciate the contrast between the music and the words. The music is subtly playful but also quite somber, which makes the humor of the words stand out even more. Natalie describes her musical choice for The Sleepy Giant this way:

“The first line of the poem is, ‘My age is three hundred and seventy-two,' so that became a period piece with 17th-century music: there was harpsichord, lute, recorder.”*

I can imagine this song in a lot of different styles, but I think the way Natalie chose to record it is just perfect.

Obviously, not all of the songs on Leave Your Sleep are as lighthearted as the ones we've covered on this week's post. But I will forever be able to point to these songs as proof that Natalie Merchant indeed has a sense of humor. After all, if a person can't laugh at baby-selling mothers, cross-dressing whales and cannibalistic, child-eating giants, what can they laugh at?

Thanks for reading!

Click here to watch a video of Natalie singing, and talking about, The Sleepy Giant

Download Topsyturvey-World on Itunes - Topsyturvey-World - Leave Your Sleep

Download It Makes a Change on Itunes - It Makes a Change - Leave Your Sleep

Download The Sleepy Giant on Itunes - The Sleepy Giant - Leave Your Sleep

*Press Democrat - August 2010


  1. When I saw Natalie perform that free live show at the Borders in Ann Arbor last year, it happened to be full of kids, and I could tell right away that having a kid did change things for her. I'd seen her multiple times in the past, but there was something about her that just seemed ... happier, more relaxed. She pulled kids up to the makeshift stage area and danced with them, joked around with them all throughout her set, and made sure that all the kids were sitting in front.

    I'd never seen her so ... serene. When I spoke with her briefly after the set, I could tell in her personality that she seemed happier than the last time we had spoken some 9 years before, and I'm happy for her.

    Up until Leave Your Sleep, I had considered Ophelia her magnum opus, but I think she outdid herself. LYS is nothing short of a masterpiece.


  2. Stacy -

    I 100% agree with you about Natalie and about LYS.

    Also, still completely filled with jealousy that you got to see that concert. It's really not cool to live on the West Coast if you are a NM fan.

  3. Heh, I don't think it's a coastal thing ... I think it's a convenience thing for her, really. She's only doing the rare "with a symphony orchestra"/or something else obscure thing now... which, honestly, I can't say I blame here because in future years it will pay off MUCH MORE in revenue ... (or at least I hope so)

  4. Yeah, I agree. I just wish I lived close enough to catch some of those performances. I want to see her perform with an orchestra so bad. I'm gonna have to make it happen one day, even if it means hopping on a plane to do it.