Put it on for people and prepare to be met with baffled stares.
While listening to George Winston and Meryl Streep’s The Velveteen Rabbit, the most pervasive thought that struck me was: why would anyone make a record like this? It’s literally just Meryl Streep narrating The Velveteen Rabbit over ambient piano by George Winston. Did one of the two artists have an affinity for the story? The birth of Streep’s first two children in 1979 and 1983 likely influenced the decision to record the album, which was released in 1985. But nonetheless: there had to be a moment when someone—Streep, Winston, a label suit—decided to get this thing rolling. I’d like to imagine it was an impulsive decision, the sort of thing people announce they’re going to do after a couple glasses of wine and (usually) promptly forget about.
But then again, what rich and famous person with a bunch of time on their hands and the ability to do pretty much whatever they want wouldn’t indulge in a passion project like this? There’s no doubt that Winston and Streep had quite a bit of fun recording this thing. Winston’s fingers flit lovingly across the keys throughout, and Streep sounds content and unforced in her narration, even as she affects a British accent that’s pretty obviously not authentic. I’d like to hear a blooper reel of this thing. It’s easy to imagine Winston hitting a bum note or Streep flubbing a line, then laughing it off together before saddling up to lay down the next take.
Streep’s mock accent might turn some listeners off, and it’s unclear why she decided to narrate the record in this voice. I suspect it has to do with the language here being quite British—Margery Williams, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, was an English transplant to New York—and it’s delightful hearing Streep say quaint phrases like “picture-book” in that voice. The Nana character who runs the nursery in the story often calls the rabbit an “old bunny,” and the way Streep says it is grin-inducing, annunciating the “b” sound with the perfect amount of venom. Her acting chops are obvious here, especially as she inhabits the book’s characters.
The story itself is delightful and surprisingly moving, though its ending—the stuffed bunny becoming real and joining a group of wild rabbits—doesn’t feel all that happy given that those same creatures mocked him viciously earlier for having no hind legs. Williams was quite fond of describing the story’s rabbits: the titular rabbit is described adorably as “fat and bunchy, as a bunny should be,” and one of the funnier moments of the album is when Streep describes one as a “splendid bunny.” It’s playful, loving language, full of idiosyncratic words that likely sound as funny to kids as adults.
Winston’s piano is understated and functional, placid even during the story’s more suspenseful moments. For long stretches, he’s not even playing at all. The 20th-anniversary reissue of the album (which is not the record I bought) includes Winston’s instrumentals separately from Meryl Streep’s narration. It’s worth a listen, but for the most part, Winston’s parts are pretty standard new-age piano, a bit too somber and uneasy to be Muzak but not idiosyncratic enough to work as ambient music. They’re more satisfying when they underline Streep’s narration, punctuating her “thens” and “suddenlys” with dramatic chords, or simply fluttering away in the background.
I think I first discovered the existence of this record while sucked into a late-night Wikipedia-browsing void. It got five stars from AllMusic, which surprised me given the silliness of the concept; indeed, this is about as good as I imagine a record like this can be, though the gaps between songs occasionally cut the flow of Streep’s narration. I found an original vinyl copy for a dollar at Skip’s CD World in West Eugene and bought it impulsively. I find myself listening to it pretty frequently. By itself, it’s soothing, narratively compelling, and a great listen on all fronts. Put it on for people and prepare to be met with baffled stares. This really is a strange record.