Like many songs on the album, this is a powerful piece of social commentary, in this instance about child abuse. Natalie Merchant sings from the perspective of a woman how lives near a family that is abusing their young son. She deplores the abuse, but isn't sure what to do about it. Afraid to take action, she wants to confront the family and ask, "What's the Matter here?," but she doesn't dare.
The Suzanne Vega hit "Luka" from a year earlier has similar subject matter.
Natalie Merchant explained the inspiration for this song during her 1998 VH1 Storytellers performance: "It was a song I wrote about a little boy who was neglected and abused. In my neighborhood there was a house that was one of these houses that had kind of a black aura about it - you would walk on the other side of the street so you didn't have to walk in front of it. It had a garbage-strewn yard; broken windows stuffed with rags; a large, vicious dog on a short leash that had dug a circular circumference into the yard over years of running in circles; a battered upholstered couch on the porch.
But at this particular house there was also a little boy. A very beautiful, harmless, innocent child. I'd see him playing on the front steps with a broken toy or maybe digging in the dirt with a spoon - he liked to do that. But every time I would walk by the house I would hear this voice coming out of the open door screaming obscenities at him. And I never really understood why - I mean, what can he do?"
Merchant wrote this song with the band's guitarist Robert Buck. They collaborated on several tracks for the band, including "Hey Jack Kerouac," "Cherry Tree" and "City of Angels." They would write by Buck coming up with some music with the band, and then Merchant forming a vocal melody around it. She would then rough out the lyrics, which Buck referred to as "tone poems," since she was working from the musical tones. Once she had a story and a structure, she would flesh out the lyrics. According to bass player Steven Gustafson, they often didn't know what the song was about until they started recording it.
My Tribe was 10,000 Maniacs breakthrough album, spending 77 weeks on the American albums chart, peaking at #37. It was produced by Peter Asher, an old hand who logged a #1 hit with "A World Without Love" as part of the duo Peter & Gordon, then produced albums for James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt and Cher.
The video was directed by Matt Mahurin, an illustrator who also did videos for Metallica ("The Unforgiven"), Tom Waits ("Hell Broke Luce") and many others. The clip implies the abuse with slow-motion footage of various children, including an energetic you boy. Typical of a 10,000 Maniacs video, there are several shots of Merchant, but the band barely appears.
Gregmon from Intelbuquerque, NmI went to Natalie's official site and was startled to find a significant change to the chorus, "I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses, he's your kid do as you see fit, but get this through that I know what you do and what you did to your own flesh and blood"
This of course differs from, "that I don't approve of what you did...". It's her song, artistic freedom and all of that, but let me say, I don't approve of the softer message.
Toni Marie from Lake City, FlI have to agree with Fred as well. I would love to see more of Natalie's songs on here. She is outstanding. I was actually looking for information about the song Wonder.
Kilgoretrout from Bouca, CoThis is one of my favorite 10,000 Maniacs songs. Incredible lyrics and Natalie is an angel. Saw them when they opened for REM in 1986, all else pales. I agree with Fred, more Maniacs. Cotton Alley is my favorite, but I would listen to Natalie sing a soup ingredients label.
Ray from Brooklyn, NyI agree with Fred. My personal favorites (in no particular order) are Don't Talk, Verdi Cries, Trouble Me, Happy Puppet, and a number of lesser known but beautiful songs from "The Wishing Chair."
Fred from Laurel, MdI'd like to echo the title of this song, and ask, "What's the Matter Here?" when, as of 2009 Oct 27, only this and one other Maniacs song, "Eat for Two," and one Natalie Merchant entry, "Carnival," appear on this site. How about, "Candy Everybody Wants," "Don't Talk," "Jealousy," "Like the Weather," "These Are the Days," "Trouble Me," and "Wonder," just to get the ball rolling? A paltry three songs by this/these smashingly magnificent artist(s) is pathetic. OK, I'm down off my soap box now, and I'll go quietly, officer. But Natalie and her voice still give me goosebumps.