Released in 1987, “In My Tribe” was the first album by the Maniacs to garner both praise and good sales at the same time. It was no coincidence, as they showed a maturity and a deft touch when it came to dealing with sensitive issues such as the environment, illiteracy, violence towards women and children and also the role some institutions like marriage play out in life.
In a certain sense it could be said that some of the songs are preachy, but this is handled in a conciliatory way, without pointing fingers at anybody. Rather than saying “it is their fault” or “you are to blame” the songs seem to say that what happens in society and in life as a whole is attributed to everybody, and the answer must be a collective one. Maybe (and probably) inspired by a single individual, but the message is that only when we move in unison we can make some progress.
Out of these “preachy” songs (hate to call them like that, but it is the right word) the most popular one is undoubtedly “What’s The Matter Here”. Personally, I never was too fond of it, but the “Unplugged” version has helped me to appreciate it best. “Campfire Song” deals with the environment and how avarice destroys the world we inhabit and transfixes values until rightness is discussed in terms of fairness. This song features no other than Michael Stipe backing Natalie, but he was misused – his contribution is over before you even notice, and Natalie sings over him. That composition is succeeded by “City Of Angels” a Mandolin-driven tune that I don’t like that much as (for once) the actual imagery is too prosaic to cause a lasting impact (I feel the same way about “What’s The Matter Here” quite frequently). Conversely, one of the first songs (“The Cherry Tree”) combines simple language with conventional imagery in a way that is attractive and moving without being as obvious as the parts taken separately would have implied, and which befits the theme of the song (the pursuit of literacy) marvelously.
On the other hand, we have an exquisite helping of songs which can be termed more personal. “Like The Weather” was a successful single, and something as mundane as staying in bed when it is dreadful outside becomes such a dilemma that one can but find himself smiling when the song has ended. The percussion is also ineluctable, and for an even better rendering pick up their posthumous “Unplugged” disc.
For its part, “The Painted Desert” studies themes of solitude that the character of the song deems as unwarranted, and that mostly any listener can relate to in some way or the other.
There are also two songs in which Natalie deals with family issues and relationships. The first is “Gun Shy” (a composition about a younger brother becoming a soldier), and “My Sister Rose” (about the marriage of that sibling). In both cases, the conclusion is that while family might be the most important institution of all (a natural institution, if you wish), it can nonetheless be damaged irretrievably by other institutions that sever natural bonds and create others which are actually more reminiscent of societal barriers that keep us apart from those that are a true part of us. “My Sister Rose” ends with the line “but you’re my sister Rose the same”, but there is something left unsaid that spells otherwise. The song has a certain humorous touch (mostly due to its narrative style), but that tone belies the pain of losing someone who shares your same blood. Of course, a sister is always a sister. A brother is a brother come what may. But society takes away certain parts of our relationships with others, and spaces we feel should be filled somehow do become filled along the way. But the consequences can be horrifying, as a song like “Jezebel” from “Our Time In Eden” showcases. At any rate, “In My Tribe” also has a hard-hitting number named “Don’t Talk” that exemplifies how nightmarish love can turn out to be when communication breaks down completely.
Before I finish, I must mention the brilliant “Hey Jack Kerouac”, Natalie’s elegy to the poet who defined an era, and which showcases an understanding of literature and the plight every true writer has to endure in a way that simply highlights Ms. Merchant often finds herself in a similar position.
The last number features Natalie backed by strings and a piano, and it closes the album in the strongest way of all. The song is named “Verdi Cries”, and it finds Natalie recollecting her younger days while vacationing by the sea. In the song, she makes the small seem grandiose, and she explores the way in which some memories gain prominence and become remembered forever, even at the expense of other recollections. In the end, it seems that small moments like the ones described in the song (a time when the world never bothered her at all) are those we treasure the most. Some poet once said that the only place where something truly belongs to us is our memory. Natalie is making the same point, but as the song concludes she gives an indication that reality is more important than those treasured figments within our mind. She was maturing. They all were maturing. And they would invite us for the ride, no matter what the final destination would be, and no matter if our time in Eden was not going to be paradisiacal at all when the day ended.