Our Time In Eden': the title is an imagined memory as well as the statement of a Utopian ideal. In the vision of Natalie Merchant, the singer and primary songwriter of 10,000 Maniacs, the high-minded belief that somehow life and our individual lives within it is perfectible battles a deeper, Catholic assumption that we are fallen beings and no amount of effort on our part can re-create paradise, or possibly even a livable world, now. That struggle between fervent hope and a kind of wide-eyed despair propels the thirteen songs on this gripping new album, infusing it with a provocative, unnerving power.
First impressions of the album will not reveal those depths. As always, the Maniacs guitarist Rob Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson and drummer Jerome Augustyniak style instantly appealing musical surfaces. Buck's playful fascination with the shimmering sounds that can be coaxed from a variety of stringed instruments lap and pedal steel guitar, electric sitar, banjo, mandocello lend enticing strangeness to the band's otherwise straightforward smart-pop arrangements. Merchant herself plays a good deal of piano on the album, and her simple, searching melodies evoke mystery and yearning.
Strings add luster to three tracks; bassoons turn up on another. The JB Horns strut their funky stuff on two songs as a concept (Natalie Merchant as the hardest-working woman in showbiz?), the collaboration may sound contrived, but they pull it off with ease. And with alternative all-star Paul Fox handling production replacing Peter Asher, who did In My Tribe (1987) and Blind Man's Zoo (1989) the Maniacs are far less restrained, though no less disciplined.
Merchant's voice, of course, provides continual sensual pleasure. She is one of the rare singer-lyricists Van Morrison and Michael Stipe also come to mind who, while obsessed by what they have to say and by words themselves, exult in the sheer physical delight of making vocal sounds. Given the choice though she would prefer not to have to make the choice Merchant will always opt for pleasure over verbal meaning in rendering a vocal line, and rightly so. This makes her songs difficult to understand in literal terms but easy to respond to emotionally.
The emotions called forth, however, are not always to be trusted. Coupled with the appealing textural feel of the band's music, Merchant's instinct for joy provides a jarring complement to the frequent darkness of her themes and her occasionally chilly moral earnestness. In other words, the sonic allure of the Maniacs' music and Merchant's voice is a seduction into songs that are charged, complex and troubling.
As it typically does in Merchant's lyrics, biblical imagery runs throughout Our Time in Eden. That can give her songs the feel of parables, as do the questions that come up again and again, making the album both instructional and a kind of driven spiritual quest. "If You Intend," a challenge to live that might be addressed to a person suffering with AIDS, defends life's inherent worth and asks, "How can you be so near and not see?" In "Eden," Merchant confesses, "We're not honest, not the people that we dream," and then wonders, "Is there still time?" The JB Horns kick in fine R&B style on "Few and Far Between," but Merchant agonizes: "I'm a body frozen/I'm a will that's paralyzed/When will you ever set aside your pain and misery?"
Most dramatically, the gorgeous balled "Circle Dream" takes an ancient symbol of perfection and transforms it into a horrifying emblem of entrapment. In a floating, childlike voice, over a delicate piano and keyboards accompaniment, Merchant sings: "I dreamed of a circle.... And in that circle was a maze, a terrible spiral to be lost in/Blind in my fear, I was escaping just by feel/But at every turn my way was sealed." In stunning contrast, the exuberant "These Are Days" summons up an almost mystical sense of ecstatic connection to a world that is wild and open: "When May is rushing over you with desire/Take part in the miracles you see in every hour/You'll know it's true that you are blessed and lucky/It's true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you."
Such moments may be as close as we come to getting back to the garden, Merchant suggests on Our Time in Eden; paradise may indeed be forever lost. But in our minds and hearts, our time in Eden is as real as our days on Earth; it exists within us to inspire us to hope for better days ahead and to be better ourselves. (RS 640)
(Posted: Jan 27, 1997)
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