If Natalie Merchant once seemed giddy from success after the Maniacs’ 1987 watershed album, In My Tribe, that euphoria has apparently worn off and she has decided it’s time to get serious on their follow-up. A subtitle to Blind Man’s Zoo might be “Scanning the Headlines with Natalie Merchant.” The band’s vocalist and main songwriter takes aim at water pollution on “Poison in the Well” (the timing couldn’t be better, with that mess still floating in Prince William Sound), the plight of the working poor (“Dust Bowl”) and the Iran-contra affair on “Please Forgive Us.”
She writes lyrics whose indirection softens the harshness of the rhetoric on the political songs. When she’s on, Merchant can draw sharp and poignant images, such as in “The Big Parade,” which traces a trip by the son of a Vietnam vet to the monument in Washington: “How would life have ever been the same/ If this wall had carved in it one less name?” Give her points again for topicality when, on “Eat for Two,” she sings about the darker side of deciding to bear a child: “Dream child in my head/ Is a nightmare born in a borrowed bed.” The semioperatic “Jubilee” is a major downer about a racist who sets fire to a dance hall where he saw a young black man and a white woman kissing.
Fine, but what about the music, you say? Well, that familiar Maniacs sound is still intact, which means that for all the warmth generated by Robert Buck’s lightly strummed electric guitar, there is also a lack of variation that gets monotonous. The band’s live shows tend to display more power in the music, although even then they can hit stubborn plateaus. It’s probably no accident that the first track on the album released as a single is the atypical “Trouble Me,” slightly funky, light on social consciousness and benefiting from a soulful assist by Jevetta Steele on backing vocals. (Elektra)