At the time of its release, Blind Man’s Zoo finally found 10,000 Maniacs making music appropriate to Natalie Merchant’s increasingly dark lyrics. Previous singles such as "Like the Weather" and "What’s the Matter Here" seemed a bit too bouncy to be dealing with such subject matter as depression and child abuse.
"The Big Parade" and "Dustbowl" are two of the album’s most vivid songs, while "Headstrong" has a backbeat as stubborn as Merchant’s bullheaded narrator.
Then I went back in time to discover The Wishing Chair and started to perceive shortcomings in Blind Man’s Zoo. Merchant’s literary settings on that first album — a graveyard in "Lilydale", an old house in "Tension Makes a Tangle" — were concerned more with imagery than message. With Blind Man’s Zoo, the balance started to shift in the other direction.
As I moved my vinyl collection to CD in the ’90s, Blind Man’s Zoo didn’t make the jump. The album had fallen out of favor as the band itself started to run its course. It’s taken me 19 years to revisit this album, and I have to say — I was right the first time.
Blind Man’s Zoo is perhaps the band’s most focused album, if not one of its most powerful.
Merchant emerged as the driving creative force on In My Tribe, and she would solidify that position with Blind Man’s Zoo. In the past, the music and words didn’t share much of a relationship, but on this album, the words clearly dictated the course of the music.
"Eat for Two" has an ominous chorus to match the dread of an unplanned pregnancy, while a tribal-like beat drives the dark, long guitar lines of "Hateful Hate". "Jubilee" inverts the lyricism of "Verdi Cries" to tell a story of zealotry and racism.
Even the bouncy rhythm of "You Happy Puppet" takes a sardonic twist.
No, Merchant can’t be rewarded for being light-hearted on this album, but she does show a bit of a tender side on "Trouble Me", a quietly affirming song that belies its easy pace.
Producer Peter Asher took a strict approach on In My Tribe, recording guitarist Rob Buck without effects and at times replacing drummer Jerome Augustinyak with a drum machine. On Blind Man’s Zoo he bolsters the band’s presence to feel a lot more live.
"Headstrong" has the kind of punk forwardness hinted by "My Mother the War", while "Poison in the Well" has an urgency not quite captured on previous albums.
Blind Man’s Zoo doesn’t have the tunefulness of The Wishing Chair or the breadth of In My Tribe. Merchant still does a tremendous job of telling a compelling story, but the more didactic songs leave little room for the subtle touches. Nothing on Blind Man’s Zoo matches the descriptiveness of "Tension Makes a Tangle".
But with its narrow focus on socially-minded themes, Blind Man’s Zoo holds together incredibly well, and while it would have been easy for Merchant to drown in her dark frame of mind, her bandmates guarantee she doesn’t wallow. If anything, they push her to be much more forward.