Here’s a clip featuring college rock jangle-merchants 10,000 Maniacs. It’s “These Are Days”, a defiantly anthemic, dancing-on-a-gargoyle optimistic tune, the studio version of which to be found on the band’s 1992 disc Our Time in Eden,. That record would be the last one of which to feature founding singer, now solo-artist, Natalie Merchant.
Another version of the song would appear on their MTV Unplugged live album the following year just before Merchant struck out on her own. As such, it’s really the perfect end-of-an-era tune for a band who began in 1981, fronted by a seventeen-year-old Merchant, who eventually became a full blown songwriter in her own right, and a very deft one even with this tune alone. She co-wrote this with guitarist Robert Buck, hitting #1 on Billboard’s “Modern Rock” chart.
The band became known for a jangly, Smiths-style guitar sound by the end of the ’80s, when they were beginning to get out of their college rock musical neighbourhood to explore the outer reaches of the mainstream. But, along the way they revealed their subtleties, too.
The Byrds, and ’60s folk-rock in general are stylistic seams that you can hear in their stuff by this period. And Natalie Merchant’s background in being exposed to jazz at an early age certainly comes out in her vocal style, only to be built upon later in her solo career.
It all comes together here, on my favourite of their singles, with sunny optimism shining through without being cloying, or maudlin. Of course, the song is not without its sense of melancholy, too.
To me, it’s a song about growing up, which makes it as good a swan song for Merchant as part of the band as anything. But, beyond that it seems to refer to the road to self-awareness in general, and the feelings of gratitude that often come as a result; to know that one has been blessed and (or?) lucky. It’s about appreciating every moment, and realizing that every stage in one’s life has its own treasures, all the while knowing that you’re on a road to becoming.
In lesser hands, this could sound like a trite Valedictorian speech by some well-meaning overachiever. But, the subtle approach in Merchant’s vocal, the tastefully restrained playing, and the arrangement which is both light and aurally flavourful at the same time, saves it from that pitfall. As such, even if this song shines as a sunny, and positive anthem, it also allows you to hear that where there certainly is that sense of becoming in this song, there is also a sense of the passing away of what came before. It subtly touches upon an inevitable kind of loss to be found in human experience as we move on from one thing to another, from one era to the next; “our time in eden”, indeed. It’s that balance that makes this song great.
Maybe this is how Merchant felt, reaching the end of her time with a band she’d spent over a decade with. Still, her replacement Mary Ramsey would play on the album, not as vocalist but as violin/viola player. Ramsey would take over vocal duties on 1997’s Love Among the Ruins.
Natalie Merchant’s first solo album, Tigerlily, came by 1995. A new phase had started, with her days with the band as those she would certainly remember.
10 000 Maniacs is an active band today 31 years after it was founded. Check out the official 10 000 Maniacs site.