Our Time in Eden is indeed a departure for the Maniacs, and many fans insist it's the band at its best. Teetering on the edge of soft rock without quite going over the precipice, Eden is brightened by some flashy touches – like James Brown's horn section sitting in on a couple of eminently radio-friendly songs, "Candy Everybody Wants" and "Few and Far Between." The issue-oriented songs, long a Maniacs mainstay, are there, too, but much of the album concerns the intricacies of personal relationships. Merchant, who could have been called remote and even moralistic in earlier forays, displays an ability to get into other people's minds with a dexterity and empathy that was only hinted at on previous albums.
If Our Time in Eden sounds like the work of someone who has clearly stopped dividing the world into good and evil, us and them, it's because Merchant says she has changed. "I've learned to appreciate gray areas as I grow older," she says. And the band, which has given Merchant free rein with the lyrics, agrees. Augustyniak says of the old days: "When Natalie started singing that stuff, I was going, 'Hey, is this shit gonna wash?' And lo and behold, it turns out we're the forebears. It's an ugly fact of life that people who dress in dark colors can be subversive. But to an extent, as you grow older, it looks kind of pathetic to strike an anti-authoritarian pose."
It was a lesson the band learned the hard way when their 1989 release, Blind Man's Zoo, bombed. Steve Gustafson says it was a painful time professionally as well as personally. "Blind Man's Zoo didn't really reach expected sales," he says. "And it really felt like – I don't know if albatross is the right word – but it just really felt like something that wasn't really quite what we wanted to do. I feel like we just missed it . . . It was a very sad time." Buck concurs. "Most people around us thought that that was it," he says, "that it was over and we were never gonna make another record. But our whole career's been like that. We've never had any commitment to each other to do anything other than what we're doing at the moment."
The group was formed in Jamestown, an economically depressed town in upstate New York, the same year Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term in office. In any small community, fringe types tend to seek each other out, and Jamestown was no exception. High-school pals Drew and Gustafson started Jamestown Community College's radio station, WJWK. Though the pair was initially more interested in spinning records, acts like the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Sex Pistols inspired the two of them to create, and they joined a band formed by Rob Buck called Still Life.
On a whim, they invited Merchant – whom they knew only vaguely – to play a party with them and soon added rhythm guitarist John Lombardo (and later Augustyniak) and rechristened themselves 10,000 Maniacs, in a twist on an old horror-movie title, Two Thousand Maniacs!
They started performing locally. It was all very informal, and the guys never knew if Merchant would show up at the next gig – but she always did. "It's been amazing to watch her grow from a timid hippie girl to a woman," Gustafson says. "She was sixteen when we met her." She sang in short, jerky phrases, creating a dialect of her own with her unusual, lush voice. It was a perfect match with the music the guys were trying to create – an odd hybrid of punk, New Wave, art rock and reggae.
At first painfully shy (Merchant says she used to sing with her back to the audience), she quickly became known for a distinctive stage manner, punctuated by a trademark frantic tap dance and spin – Stevie Nicks meets Poltergeist. She still wasn't relating to the audience much, but the audiences were too transfixed to care.
Despite its love of punk, the band's songs were relentlessly perky. "Musically, we've always written these vaguely happy songs," Dennis Drew admits, "these toe tappers. It's just what comes out. I mean, we try to write scary stuff, and it comes out stupid."
Simmering beneath the upbeat surface were Merchant's lyrics, and they were teeming with confusion, bewilderment and at times baldfaced pretension. The band loved it. "In the early days we all encouraged it and got a big kick out of it," says Buck. "We told Natalie, 'Oh, this is so great that this song is so pretty and these lyrics are so depressing, this is genius!' "
Merchant begs to differ. She's less than thrilled, as most anyone would be, with the fact that her adolescent rebellion has been preserved for posterity. "I look at my early records as term papers that maybe would've been better buried in a box in the attic," she says, "and taken out ten years later and chuckled about: 'Oh, I was quite ambitious then, wasn't I?' "
Pretentious though it might have been, the band had no problem finding an audience. During a time when Bon Jovi ruled the charts and worrying about the ozone layer was considered, well, retro, the Maniacs were one of a handful of groups (including R.E.M., Hüsker Dü and the B-52's) that concerned themselves with politics, humanism and the environment. They toured as often as they could, filling Athens, Georgia's famed 40 Watt Club so frequently that many scenesters thought they were locals.
Elektra signed the band in 1984 and the next year released The Wishing Chair, which was not quite slick enough to gain the larger audience the label had hoped for. Shortly after that, John Lombardo – who had written most of the music and had been the Maniacs' nerve center – quit the band. Buck and the others took over song-writing duties, and Merchant took the lead in every other way. The next album, In My Tribe, was recorded with producer Peter Asher, known for his work with such middle-of-the-road acts as Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Asher cleaned up the band's frayed edges without producing something terrifyingly slick, and In My Tribe became its breakout album.
Merchant wrote the band's runaway hit "Like the Weather," about, well, a really, really bad mood. But so buoyant was the tune – and it came with such a shiny, happy video starring an adorably pouty Merchant – that it became easy for the hordes of newfound Maniacs fans to ignore the bummer lyrics if they wanted to and focus on the star.
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