Piece of Rock Journalism Ever Written About Stephin Merritt,
In About a Thousand Words"
by Rusty W. Spell
For those of you who don't know Stephin Merritt, he's the anti-rock superstar-cum-indie god behind The Magnetic Fields, the best songwriter since Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and the band your mother would love if she weren't so busy baking cookies and telling you how to run your life. Stephin, who is rock-n-roll enough to at least change the spelling of Stephen, is also involved in other bands: The 6ths, a multi-vocal group which is meant to be an ersatz tribute to himself; Future Bible Heroes, an electronic renaissance of 80s synth pop; and The Gothic Archies, a blend of the super-dark thoughts that plague his depressed mind and the bubble-gum pop that has made him so delicious to chew. In addition to writing songs for all these bands - while sitting in a gay bar, and yes he's gay (his publishing company being called Gay and Loud) - he also writes music criticism for Time Out and raises his Chihuahua, Irving.
The Magnetic Fields, the moniker for the band most closely associated with Merritt, achieved their first dose of fame with the college radio hit, "100,000 Fireflies," an irresistible wistful little Christmas-carol-like number featuring the crippling opening lyric, "I have a mandolin. / I play it all night long. / It makes me want to kill myself." This song, and the first two albums, were sung by Susan Anway, due to Merritt hating his voice and in order to maintain the Brechtian distance associated with all of his work. To this day, Merritt calls in performers to sing for him, but most fans seem to prefer his deep baritone, his warm moody croon (think Johnny Cash with a splash of Leonard Cohen), to Anway's pretty choirgirl delicacies.
Indeed, only through his own bored-yet-engaging voice do most of these songs begin to make sense for the listener, the songs being a new brand of experimental Casio-driven bubble-gum electronic synthesizer pop mixed with the various styles of ABBA, Phil Spector, Gary Numan, New Order, OMD, The Human League, Kraftwerk, Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, Roger Miller, Fleetwood Mack, and The Carter Family. Buzzing guitars and grating noises hover over grainy synthesizers and second-hand drum machines in super sugary pop tunes, while - lyrically - clichés are twisted, unraveled, and exposed for the beautiful half-truth frauds they are. Impossibly silly rhymes are made (see "On a Ferris wheel, looking out on Coney Island / Under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand"), genders are bent (Merritt sings as girl, Anyway sings as boy; you get the picture), dead-on pop sensibilities are utilized, and listener's ears are delighted.
The pundits out there will say that The Magnetic Fields are too precious and calculated, that Stephin Merritt is a pompous megalomaniac for refusing to be lumped in with the indie rock crowd (even though he records all his albums in his cavish New York apartment using a ton of exotic instruments, including a Slinky connected to an electric guitar, and even though he releases his albums on Superchunk's indie label Merge, and even though he appeals to that indie crowd of straight white college boys). Some say he should forgo the multi-band pretensions and just use "Stephin Merritt" as his moniker with something closer to eponymous album titles (rather than cleverly-titled ones like Wasps Nests) instead of all this post-modern trickery. But those ne'er-do-wells are forgetting the simplicity of the perfect pop gem that he creates time and time again, winding himself up like a Tin Pan Alley machine: songs so catchy that it should be bad for you, and something so simple that you could have written yourself, but didn't.
Yes, the songs are great, and so are the albums. Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus (the two Susan Anyway-sung albums that now appear together on one disc re-released by Merge) are shimmering experiments and tributes to Phil Spector; The House of Tomorrow EP is a full-band effort consisting of five "loop songs" in which the same few measures are played over and over; Holiday is an escape album of keyboardy pop songs; The Charm of the Highway Strip is a country-style album about traveling on the open road; and Get Lost is a lovely (if imperfect) stab at electro-pop as well as a hint of things to come on the grandiose concept album, 69 Love Songs.
Originally conceived by Merritt (again, while sitting in a gay bar and listening to the juke box) as a 100 song revue, 69 Love Songs is an ambitious effort where Stephin sings most of the songs, writes all of them, and performs most everything as well. For anti-monotony's sake, however, he allows other singers to appear: his manager, foil, and right-hand woman Claudia Gonson; Flare singer LD Beghtol; karaoke genius Dudley Klute; and the versatile Shirley Simms (all of them singing at least one same-sex love song apiece). The three disc album is full of genre-hopping from rock to country to jazz to hillbilly folk to traveling minstrels, nothing being inappropriate as long as it is a love song. And, considering its length, it's simply amazing how many songs are good (most all). There are some throwaways like "Punk Rock Love" or "Experimental Music Love," but those only add to the concept of the mass-market love song.
Watching The Magnetic Fields perform these songs on stage is a treat. While Claudia cheerfully plays piano, Stephin not-too-earnestly strums his guitar or ukulele, captivating the audience with their shiny songs of subjects d'amour. Sam Devol sits on cello and John Woo on banjo, waiting patiently like well-oiled robots to begin playing while Stephin and Claudia yammer on about this or that, Claudia's sunny showmanship and jokes providing perfect counterpoint to Stephin's look of not wanting to be there and gripes at the audience for talking over the soft songs, holding hands during the sweet songs, dancing during the fast songs, or for doing anything that all that outwardly expresses that they are enjoying the show.
No matter which moniker Stephin Merritt goes under - even the monikers of Stephin Merritt Soundtrack Man, The Three Terrors, or the Baudelaire Memorial Orchestra - each moniker is sure to fill your eponymous-cum-ersatz heart with joy in spite of the gloom, doom, and hopelessness monikering eponymously around.
Can you tell that I hate rock
Listen to my cry: "Just listen to the music! Stop the reading! Just listen to music! Stop the the writing!"
Copyright (c) Aug 2001 - Jan 2008 by The Distant Plastic Treehouse