My friend, Rachel, recently suggested I write about the 10,000 Maniacs breakthrough 1987 album, In My Tribe, which was, essentially, their introduction to a mass audience and my first listen to this remarkable band. But as I was listening to my Maniacs catalogue, I realized that I strongly preferred their final album with Natalie Merchant, Our Time In Eden, released in the fall of 1992, when I was starting my senior year of college. It brings back great memories: I didn’t have many financial resources in those days, so I don’t remember exactly how I purchased a copy of the album that September, but I did, and as it turns out, it was a worthwhile investment, as it turned out to be the best album they ever recorded.
The Maniacs followed-up In My Tribe, with the daunting, preachy, Blind Man’s Zoo, which had one solitary, mostly-cheerful song (and best cut on the album), “Trouble Me,” in which the tender video depicts Merchant as the key social director to a certain, lucky senior citizen. The rest of the LP was depressing and funereal. I remember buying the cassette of Blind Man’s Zoo the week I graduated high school in May of 1989. I would listen to it in my Walkman while I mowed the lawn at the farm that summer, and the maudlin music somehow comforted me as I dreaded the terrifying prospect that lie ahead: leaving my beautiful, Neponset countryside for university dorm life. Fitting, then, that the band decided to bookend my college career by releasing their follow-up to Blind Man’s Zoo the fall of my final year at Northern Illinois University.
Our Time In Eden, receiving a perfect, 5-star rating in Rolling Stone magazine at the time (a rating, which, somehow lost two stars over the past two decades in preceding RS publications), was exactly what I suspected from the band: serious-minded, catchy, and socially-conscious jingle-jangle-pop that was no-doubt informed by The Byrds, Big Star, and early-REM (relevant sidebar: I'm so glad REM retired; there's something to be said about bowing-out before it's too late: I'm lookin' at you, U2...). What’s not to love about that hybrid? Finally ejecting the tyrannical (and reportedly verbally abusive to the Maniacs) Peter Asher as producer, the band was able to loosen-up and have fun. Merchant’s lyrics are always aimed squarely at the heart and at the head, but on Eden, Merchant and the Maniacs kicked-up the fun, adding Motown horns and hard rock (no joke!) guitars to the folk-pop mix to which we fans had grown accustomed. The result? Sublime and timeless ear-candy.
The first “hit” on the album (#66) was the optimistic and hella-catchy, “These Are Days,” with a video featuring Merchant in a cute, white Gap sweater (only $12.99!) singing on top of New York skyscraper, with break-away shots of children running through the woods (was one of those kids wearing a Nixon mask? I’m not sure, but what about the boy with the “kiss me quiet” written on his forehead and the girl with the “squeeze me slow!” written on her stomach?) and college students playing footsy (I didn’t understand the point of the eye-patch on the dude, either, but I just went with it). Weird, you say? Not in the early 90’s, when flannel-wearing denizens of the era would have referred to it as simply, “granola.” I hate flannel shirts and black jeans to this day.
The second modest hit on the album (#67) was the Motown-influenced “Candy Everybody Wants,” about the evils of commercialism (“engineered opinions”) with the newly fashion-conscious Merchant blending genders in both a suit AND an evening gown, interspersed with the interchangeable “Simply Irresistible” girls and faux advertisements (“…lust and hate is the candy, and blood and love tastes so sweet”). Sigh... Socially conscious pop at it’s best. The irony of multi-million selling pop artists leveraging MTV to comment about the “travesty” of commercialism, to wit: “I don't want no lies, I don't watch TV, I don't waste my time reading magazines…”
Nevertheless, Our Time In Eden is truly magnificent pop music, and if you’ve never heard it, I can’t recommend it enough. And thanks, Rachel, for reminding me of the 10,000 Maniacs. Great band. Great album.