10,000 Maniacs always excelled at cerebral folk-pop arrangements, gracefully blending stringed instruments, brass and percussion with lead singer Natalie Merchant’s rich, supple voice. But it wasn’t until a decade into their career together that the band created its masterpiece. Each of the tracks on 10,000 Maniacs’s swan song, Our Time in Eden, is like a miniature parable on the state of America, past and present. The album’s opening track, “Noah’s Dove,” is told from the perspective of someone still inside the garden, looking out—perhaps enviously—at a fallen angel: “You were the chosen one, the pure eyes of Noah’s Dove/Choir boys and angels stole your lips and your halo.” The allegory continues on the richly poetic “Eden,” in which Merchant recognizes mortal imperfection (read: “original sin”) and, having presumably eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, realizes that time is slowly devouring her time in the garden.
The Biblical imagery isn’t always as overt, though. Merchant is a gifted lyricist and her greatest work can be found among Eden‘s 13 tracks. She’s concerned with both the present (her Utopian ideal) and the past (her idealized memory): “These Are Days,” “Few & Far Between” and “If You Intend” all deal with seizing the moment, acknowledging and making peace with the past and making the choice to simply live, respectively, while tracks like “How You’ve Grown” and “Stockton Gala Days” nostalgically and reluctantly address the singer’s past. Merchant can conjure a place and time with ease; she seemingly picks her words carefully but they fall from her mouth as if by chance, like they suddenly came to her as she stood there in front of the microphone in the recording booth: “That summer fields grew high with foxglove stalks and ivy…Emerald green like none I have seen apart from dreams that escape me.”
One of Eden‘s most striking moments is the lush “Circle,” in which Merchant twists the traditional meaning of the titular symbol, envisioning it as a womb, a maze (“A terrible spiral to be lost in”) and the face of a temptress. There are a few obligatory tales of morality, including “Tolerance,” “Candy Everybody Wants,” in which Merchant’s cynicism is juxtaposed with crisp guitars, shiny horns and bright melodies, and “I’m Not the Man,” which finds Merchant narrating as a black man falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death. Ominous bassoons give the song its foreboding sense of helplessness and despair, and Merchant aptly ends the album with the rhetorical question: “Who struck this devil’s deal?” It’s a fitting close to an album that takes its listeners on a journey from the exile of Eden to a frontier-era America (“Gold Rush Brides”) and back again, never once doubting that it is indeed possible to return to the garden.