10,000 MANIACS: BLIND MAN'S ZOO (1989)
Every bad poet, given time and persistence, will produce at least one masterpiece — and if he is really, really bad, he might even produce two. Anyway, 'Eat For Two' is a tremendous song. It is impossible to explain why — it is written exactly the way all of the other upbeat tunes by 10,000 Maniacs are usually written, but somehow Merchant, banging on solid rock, managed to dislodge a single speck of gold lodged in one tiny nook. The wobbly, paranoid guitar backing from Buck, joining with Natalie's grim recounting — "I eat for two, walk for two, breathe for two..." — is a perfect setting for one of the darkest songs about accidental pregnancy ever written (actually, I'm not even sure what other songs about accidental pregnancy I can remember at present).
What makes it even more cool is the ambiguity of the message — is this conveying happiness? tenderness? anxiety? desperation? horror? a little bit of everything? who knows? All the soon-to-be-mothers in America must have been eagerly listening to the song back in 1989, and now, from a retro perspective, it is clear that this is exactly that one song that no one could ever do better than Ms. Merchant. Any other gal would have overcooked it. Here, she's perfect.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album does feel very much like a blind man's zoo, no matter how sincerely the band tries to convince us it's really a metaphor for the whole wide world we live in. Take the paranoid guitar waves and the morose chorus away from 'Eat For Two', and here is your recipé for all the other upbeat songs on the record. And things only get screwed up more by the bluntness. If Merchant wants to ask the world for forgiveness on behalf of the entire United States of America for their nasty imperialist behavior, it may not be a particularly spectacular artistic choice to call the song 'Please Forgive Us' — and make sure that the song's major (and only!) hook is the title itself, delivered in a supremely guilt-ridden tone. Yes, liberal guilt is a noble feeling alright, but converting it into popular music as if that were the sole purpose of popular music makes the results not any more different from yer average «Christian rock» on the other side. And don't even get me started on the other titles — I mean, 'Hateful Hate'? Is this supposed to be a good title just because no one ever used it before? Isn't there, like, a good reason for the fact that no one ever used it before?
Three songs break the paralyzed formula. 'Trouble Me', wisely chosen as the other single along with 'Eat For Two', is a relatively simple and touching fast ballad — not memorable at all, but a light little «breather» in between all the preaching. 'Dust Bowl', lyrically, is almost like a sequel to 'Eat For Two', and musically, is full of beautiful interlocking jangly folk lines. And for the coda ('Jubilee'), they enlist a small string section to deliver a six-minute long chamber piece, also not particularly memorable, original, or even good, but... different at least.
Not that it changes things all that much. In strict accordance with the band's agenda, they just give you an attitude-filled diary of world events — Natalie Merchant wants to be your conscience, not your entertainment. Obviously, good music under such conditions can only be produced in a somewhat accidental manner. BUT! — and I do mean but! — before writing it all off, you'd better check it out with your conscience first. Who knows, you might find some parts of it, or even all of it, misplaced somewhere. If so, I reverse my judgement, Blind Man's Zoo is a damn fine record to help one grow back the damaged parts.
(There is also a great recipé to help you confound your friends and befuddle your enemies — put Blind Man's Zoo together with Ted Nugent's Love Grenade on one playlist and hit shuffle. Nuclear reaction guaranteed). Thumbs down, by the way, but I guess that was already understood.
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