10,000 Maniacs: Blind Man’s Zoo

May 16, 1989 – 10,000 Maniacs: Blind Man’s Zoo is released.
# allmusic 3.5/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Blind Man’s Zoo 10,000 Maniacs’ fourth album, released on this date in May, 1989.
Following the chart success of the Maniacs’ fourth album, In My Tribe, Blind Man’s Zoo seems curiously subdued. Setting the mood from the outset, “Eat For Two” is a decidedly downbeat narrative about unplanned pregnancy. On the surface, “You Happy Puppet” is a mid-tempo adult-contemporary rock song. But, when accompanied by vocalist Natalie Merchant’s expressive vocals and lyrics, it turns into a brusque indictment of middle-class complacency. “Headstrong,” one of the album’s standout tracks, refers to such earlier, guitar-heavy rockers as “My Mother the War.”
Robert Buck’s elegant guitar work is given free reign on “Dust Bowl,” a poignant story of poverty and the album’ s other superlative track. “Hateful Hate” sets harsh, echoing drums against the righteous indignation of Merchant’s anti-manifest destiny lyric. Blind Man’s Zoo might not be the album that one would have expected from a popular folk-influenced band, but it makes great strides in giving the band a depth and credibility that few of their peers possess.
It’s easy to polish the furniture or feed the baby while listening to a 10,000 Maniacs album, which is both the group’s saving grace and its biggest shortcoming. Earnest and well intentioned to a fault, singer Natalie Merchant covers all the politically correct topics in her songs, but she does so to the breeziest sort of New Age pop, as on the band’s 1987 breakthrough album, In My Tribe. As a result, the Jamestown, New York, quintet has vaulted from college-radio favorites to gold-record stardom, yet one doubts Merchant means for songs like Tribe’s child-abuse study “What’s the Matter Here?” to be hummed along to while washing the dishes.
Some of these contradictions remain on Blind Man’s Zoo, the Maniacs’ fourth album. Producer Peter Asher is once again at the helm, and as on Tribe, he creates the same lemon-meringue cushion for the band. Unless you’re staring at the lyric sheet, you’d never know “The Big Parade” (about the Vietnam War memorial wall), “Jubilee” (concerning religious fanaticism and prejudice) and “Poison in the Well” (about ecological suicide) are among Merchant’s most ambitious compositions. Asher’s approach works perfectly for the first single, a tender “You’ve Got a Friend” update called “Trouble Me,” but it backfires on “Please Forgive Us,” in which Merchant uses a fluffy melody to apologize obliquely for U.S. military aid to foreign governments.
Still, Blind Man’s Zoo may be the Maniacs’ best record. The band sounds more focused, its flowing-river rhythms and Robert Buck’s darting guitars more powerful than ever. The album’s best songs merge the smoothness of “Like the Weather” with the more disturbing lyrics and textures of the Maniacs’ pre-Elektra recordings. In “Eat for Two,” a pregnant young woman bitterly ponders her fate as Dennis Drew’s piano drives the music along; the dirgelike “Hateful Hate,” Merchant’s attack on colonial imperialism, is colored by Buck’s sirenlike lead. In “Dust Bowl,” beautiful in a mountain-ballad way, Merchant takes the role of a downtrodden working woman with children; the song’s opening lines – “I should know to leave them home/They follow me through the store with these toys I can’t afford” – are some of Merchant’s most vivid.
On those songs, Merchant’s voice sounds more than ever like the late Sandy Denny’s, and the Maniacs sound like a band, not just an anonymous group of sessioneers. The Maniacs also demonstrate that within their lilting music, they are capable of living up to the twisted inspiration of their name. (RS 558)
~ DAVID BROWNE (August 10, 1989)
All songs written by Natalie Merchant except as noted.
Side one
“Eat for Two” – 3:26
“Please Forgive Us” (Robert Buck, Merchant) – 3:22
“The Big Parade” (Jerome Augustyniak, Merchant) – 4:00
“Trouble Me” (Dennis Drew, Merchant) – 3:08
“You Happy Puppet” (Buck, Merchant) – 3:35
“Headstrong” – 4:13
Side two
“Poison in the Well” (Drew, Merchant) – 3:05
“Dust Bowl” (Buck, Merchant) – 4:11
“The Lion’s Share” (Drew, Merchant) – 3:00
“Hateful Hate” – 4:28
“Jubilee” – 6:07

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