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Blind Man's Zoo was the fourth studio album by the cult American group 10,000 Maniacs and released in 1989. This is much in the vein of previous albums with Natalie Merchant's distinctive and sublime vocals always meshing pleasantly with the melodic jingle jangle guitars of Robert Buck. If you had to be very pedantic though you could perhaps suggest that a lack of variation is starting to become more apparent by this point but then I suppose if you like this sort of music there isn't too much to complain about. Can get a trifle samey in places though and one can see why Natalie Merchant departed in the end to try something new with her solo career. I think 10,000 Maniacs might have outstayed their welcome eventually if they'd stayed around forever making endless albums like REM did. One thing I did notice here was that lyrically Natalie Merchant seems to be on her hobby horse more than the previous albums. You can almost picture her in her kitchen with a cup of tea and a sticky bun scanning the newspapers for issues to write about. Natalie Merchant probably doesn't eat sticky buns but you get the idea. So you get environmental songs, anti-war songs etc. It just feels more noticeable here for some reason and a bit too obvious at times. When it does work though there is a real poetry to the lyrics beyond the grasp of most singers and I like Merchant's particular style. The use of small town Americana imagery and a certain old fashioned aura that always seems to emanate from her,
Eat for Two begins the album and is one of the best things here. It's about a girl who is pregnant but is probably too young for such serious responsibility. It's not a judgmental song, just Merchant creating a character to write from the perspective of - as she is prone to do. "Baby blankets and baby shoes, baby slippers, baby spoons, walls of baby blue. Dream child in my head is a nightmare born in a borrowed bed. Now I know lightning strikes again. It struck me once, then struck me dead. My folly grows inside of me. I eat for two, walk for two, breathe for two now." The song is haunting and atmospheric and the vocal flexibility by the lead singer is very impressive and effective. Please Forgive Us is a big melodic pop song with a soaring vocal and wall of sound jingle jangle guitars. A really good song and very 10,000 Maniacs. Natalie Merchant's lyrics seem rather on the nose though, set apart from their usual abstract or confessional meditations. There are critical barbs about America and its foreign policy. The Big Parade is an anti-war song that references Vietnam. This is decent enough but it feels somewhat one-note as it moves along. The vocal is strong but the music never quite lifts it to the heights that it seems to be aspiring to. The lyrics are very good though. Merchant tells a story about he son of a Vietnam veteran who visits the war memorial in Washington. "How would life have ever been the same/ If this wall had carved in it one less name?"
Trouble Me is a nice slow song that gains a boost from the vocal. The dexterity of Merchant here as she speeds up and slows down at alternate points for maximum effect is very impressive. This song has more of a dreamy aura than others here and while the lyrics seem rather straight forward the vocal is very impressive again. "Trouble me, disturb me with all your cares and you worries, Speak to me and let our words build a shelter from the storm." It was released as the first single from Blind Man's Zoo I believe. An interesting choice and insight into the not completely conventional way that 10,000 Maniacs went about their business. It's a nice song but you wouldn't automatically have it down as an obvious single with its more languid air. You Happy Puppet is a much breezier song with jangling guitars. I like this one but I'm not sure about the cheesy guitar solo. It sounds like that music they have with ceefax pages when the television closes down. The lyrics are somewhat vague here. Natalie Merchant seems to be irritated by people who are happy to go along with the status quo and don't seek to question their lives more and change the world around them. Or something. Most people are too busy paying the bills and waiting for a train somewhere. It's probably easier to find time for more existential concerns when you are a millionaire pop star. Headstrong is a much louder than usual song for this group with big pounding drums and slightly distorted sounding guitars. A departure from the usual folk pop and Natalie Merchant sounds as if she is having to sing much louder than usual to keep up. It's not bad but not my favourite thing here.
Poison In The Well is a fairly run of the mill song, it whirls along in determined fashion but never quite settles on any hook or chorus that lodges in the memory afterwards. An environmental song about polluted water. It's good but not as sublime as you hope it might become. "Oh, they tell us there's poison in the well, that someone's been a bit untidy and there's been a small spill, All that it amounts to is a tear in a salted sea, Someone's been a bit untidy, they'll have it cleaned up in a week, But the week is over and now it's grown into years." Dust Bowl is a very pretty song with gentle guitar chords and a more restrained less mannered vocal by Natalie Merchant. This is about life on the breadline in some lottery ticket obsessed nowheresville dustball town and is very affecting and well done. "I'm adding doctor's fees to remedies with the cost of three day's work lost, I try and try but I can't save. Pennies, nickels, dollars slip away, I've tried and tried but I can't save. The hole in my pocketbook is growing." The Lion's Share is a big catchy pop song with a nice sense of melody that is very clever in its construction. Must have been a single I'd imagine. Not too sure about some of the rhyming couplets but Natalie Merchant is very charming in her vocal, meshing all these words together. "Razor claws in velvet paws, you dunce in your guarded home, till a stronger beast will call on you and pounce upon your throne."
Hateful Hate is a more melodramatic heavy sounding song with piano in the background and heavier drums than usual. Natalie Merchant also sings in a lower-slung fashion. It's an interesting epic that flirts with being pretentious but just about works. Not sure I'd listen to this as much as the poppier songs though. The lyrics are quite heavy. Full of imagery about slavery. Jubilee is a more folky end to the album. This has acoustic guitar and strings and a softer wandering minstrel type vocal from Natalie Merchant. A nice way to end. Blind Man's Zoo does suggest that 10,000 Maniacs are dipping ever deeper into the well by this point and starting to repeat themselves with their imagery and guitar sound but if you liked the other albums then you'll enjoy this and - as ever - Natalie Merchant's voice is worth an extra star alone.