20 Years Ago Today: 10,000 Maniacs' "Our Time in Eden"

This is the fourth installment of my "20 Years Ago Today" series, where I write about a life-changing album on the exact date of its 20th anniversary (you can check out the previous ones here). 20 years ago today, September 29, 1992, 10,000 Maniacs released what would be their last studio album, “Our Time in Eden”.

If one could illustrate the geology of my psyche, it would resemble the Earth turned inside out. My surface is a melting cauldron, where everything that happens ends up dissolving into each other, and the fire never dies, leaving the skin permanently fluid and numbed. Beneath all these are plates, forever shifting and unstable. At the core are peaceful forests and rivers, an enclosed paradise trapped inside layers of evolution.

Whenever I hear a 10,000 Maniacs song, I go back to that balled-up secret garden, my Eden, my paradise lost. We all lived in this virgin wilderness back in the late 80s to early 90s, a time and place where it was safe to make earnest, folk-based alternative rock. Back then, neo-hippie idealists like R.E.M., Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Suzanne Vega, and 10,000 Maniacs roamed the Earth; with Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, and the aptly-named The Innocence Mission waiting in the wings.

“In My Tribe” was my summer soundtrack in those years. Natalie Merchant’s nasal purr, the jangly-folky guitar sound, and the loose, hollow stomp of the snare drum fit perfectly in the hot, dirt road, sea breeze-infested air of those days. They always sounded like home, if home meant more than the house I grew up in, the streets that looked wider then, the air that seemed thinner; but also of that very specific kind of innocence, the one that has no real grasp of time, the innocence that has no choice but to assume everything lasts because it has yet to feel any kind of loss.

The announcement of a new 10,000 Maniacs album in 1992 came with the announcement that it would be their last. I remember being real bummed out about it. I just found out about them, a few years before, raising me and nurturing me through the heat of summer, the fearsome darkness of sleepless nights; and now they were breaking up right before my innocent eyes. What made it worse was that the first single, “These are Days”, was so hair-raisingly good.

I bought the tape, heard the rest of the album, and confirmed all of my fears: this was going to be a really bittersweet farewell. The album was so fucking good and dramatic. It had none of the blissful, carefree laziness of “In My Tribe”; what it had was a sort of bipolar mix of trumpet giddiness (“If You Intend”, “Candy Everybody Wants”) and piano melancholy (“Eden”, “How You’ve Grown”, “Jezebel”).

Those piano-tinged songs killed me the most. “Eden” had that intense, new-agey, life-is-so-beautiful-and-fragile-and-I-want-to-hug-you-in-my-warm-goddess-arms gravity that presaged “Surfacing”-era Sarah Mclachlan and that still felt so refreshing at the time. “But the clock is another demon,” sang Merchant, “that devours our time in Eden.”

“How You’ve Grown” was the song that I fell in love with the most. This seems strange in retrospect – the idea that a 14-year-old kid can somehow forge a connection with a song that is essentially about the tragedy of aging. But I found the romance of it all attractive. I couldn’t relate to it, of course; but I was in love with the idea, my appreciation of the song was purely conceptual.

Because we can’t make up for the time that we’ve lost
I must let these memories provide
No little girl can stop the world to wait for me

This was my orientation with pain, at a young age. It was something that was beautiful and poetic, and not yet real and actually painful. Growing up turned out to be a slow, inevitable reversal of this process.

Every time we say goodbye
You’re frozen in my mind as the child you never will be
You never will be again

As we grow older, as our ideas grow less and less poetic and our lives grow more and more prosaic, the songs of our youth begin to look like long lost friends, only these are the types that never grow old, they stay the same forever, and the one you end up not recognizing is yourself. Now when I listen to “Our Time in Eden” I feel as if Natalie Merchant is singing directly to me. The tragedy is no longer theoretical or conceptual, it’s real and sad, and it almost sounds as if Merchant is telling me “I told you so”.

With every year that passes, the farther removed I become from the Eden of my core, my original self. It is the self with which I have developed a confusing relationship: it seems as much like a lie as it is a broken promise. Maybe we never do betray the children we will never be again, because our time in Eden was bound to be fleeting from the start. The minute we embrace the fact that nothing lasts forever, we become truly free.


image credits:
Rolling stone cover - www.wolfgangsvault.com
Dressing room picture – ear.fm


Pier Gerlofs Donia said...

Wow! Your post just threw me out of my seat! I suddenly had these vivid nostalgic images of Natalie Merchant singing on top of the Chrysler Building.

In another instance,I caught Cookie Chua singing at Tiendesitas. It was just plain awful to see her perform at such places. Yes, fans used to compare her to Natalie Merchant...

coolchinese said...

god, how did you manage to speak the words out of me?! thanks man!

coolchinese said...

god, how did you manage to speak the words out of me?!
thanx man!



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