It does not happen that often that the mood of the lyrics and the mood of the music of a song seem to totally contradict each other, and yet the result turns out just perfectly fine.
"The A Team" by Ed Sheeran, about a young girl selling her body to buy drugs but sung to the tunes of a nice acoustic ballad, is a recent example. "Enola Gay" by OMD tells the dramatic story of the atom bomb dropped on Japan at the final stages of the second World War, while accompanied by danceable electronic music. Echo & The Bunnymen’s "Ocean Rain" sounds like the romantic ballad you want to hear while holding your lover in your arms, nice and warm while it rains outside, but its lyrics are anything but romantic. "True Faith" by New Order sets a disco tune that fills dance floors to a lyric in which a drug addict tells his day to day life.
But almost never the contrast between music and lyrics has been as drastic and radical as in 10,000 Maniacs’ song "Like the Weather". A lovely danceable melody, the perfect pop music to fill dancefloors, accompanied by lyrics that in eerie perfection describe manic depression. The contrast could impossibly be bigger, but somehow it just works.
Formed as Still Life in 1981 in Jamestown, US, the band after some early line-up changes settled for the name 10,000 Maniacs, which they took from a horror movie called "Two Thousand Maniacs!". One of the key personnel changes in those early stages, was Natalie Merchant taking over vocal duties. She would become an unmissable part of the band’s history, the face of the band for several years (until she left the band to start a solo career in 1993), and with her distinct pure vocals she left a mark on the band’s history forever, not to mention her brilliant lyrics contributions. The band would continue after her departure while she embarked on a solo career, but they would never achieve the success again that they achieved with Natalie on vocals.
Their first large commercial success came in 1987 (although previous albums had given the band a loyal following already) when the album "In my Tribe" was released, and from that album came "Like the Weather". It was also released as a single and accompanied by a promo video. In that promo video we see Natalie dancing around as if nothing’s going on, again a huge contradiction to the lyrical content of the song.
The intro of the song immediately sets the tone for a lovely dance and invites the audience to the dance floor, probably many of them unaware of what the song is really about. The lyrics however from the very start leave little to the imagination:
"The colour of the sky as far as I can see is coal grey.
Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again.
Shiver in my bones, just thinking about the weather.
Quiver in my lip as if I might cry."
A coal grey sky. The contrast with the happy music playing meanwhile is huge, but the lines probably best describing the serious depression the song is about follow next:
"Well by the force of will my lungs are filled and so I breathe.
Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave."
The first line indicates that the character survives and breathes, because our body happens to fill our lungs with air, not because the character is really fully awake and feeling alive. The second line describes a scene probably familiar to everyone who has gone through a serious depression: the feeling that nothing out there is worth waking up for, the feeling that all energy and motivation to just get out of bed is missing.
The song goes up tempo a bit later, with Natalie walking and dancing around in the video to the rhythm of the music, jangly guitars and nice percussion giving the impression of a lovely song to dance to. Which it could be, if ignoring the lyrics while Natalie wonders "Where on earth is the sun hid away?"
"Like the Weather" is probably a rather extreme example of how music and lyrics can totally contradict each other in their moods, while the song still totally works and everything just falls into place musically. It was one of the band’s highlights in the most succesful era of the band’s history, which was with Merchant on vocals.
Another highlight in my opinion by the way is the 10,000 Maniacs version of "Because the Night", recorded live during MTV Unplugged. The version is as good as the original, maybe less rough and erotic vocally in expressing the passion reflecting from the lyrics, but the crystal clear vocals of Natalie making it one of the few examples of a cover being as good as the original. Both the band musically and Natalie vocally were at their best that night, and delivered a true tribute to Patti Smith’s original. This cover, with slightly altered lyrics in the end (ending the song with "And everybody’s sadder face belongs to us") and the live album recorded during MTV Unplugged in 1993, was the last release of the band with Natalie Merchant on vocals. A fitting goodbye, leaving the band while still on top of her performance.
The band moved on with (apart from a short hiatus) Mary Ramsey taking over vocal duties, but never achieved the same success as with Natalie Merchant anymore. Natalie on her side continued as a solo artist, and has been involved in activism of different sorts, including environmental activism and a short documentary she directed on domestic abuse against women, the documentary "SHELTER: A Concert Film to Benefit Victims of Domestic Violence" released in 2013.
"Like the Weather" remains a highlight in the 10,000 Maniacs catalogue, with its joyful promo video and danceable music set to lyrics contradicting every sound in the song. It is a very serious lyric about manic depression, so the lyrics should not be ignored. The song also is a reminder of how the band was shining during the days they had Natalie on vocals.