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If the 1999 release of the three-disc 69 Love Songs proved anything, it was that Magnetic Fields impresario Stephin Merritt could write gorgeous, dour smarty-pop in his sleep. It also proved that no one loves a concept album until a famously reclusive critical darling makes one. Them that’s down with Merritt’s thing wouldn’t have cared if he had dictated 57 of those songs via eye blinks during a coma—it was his idea, and it was therefore grand and sweeping and clever and revealing and only heretics had a right to be bored by one-third of it.
Which is not to say that Merritt hasn’t made some very great records and that most of 69 Love Songs isn’t two of them—although my top votes go to the well-worn classics Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus, reissued in a handy single-disc set in 1995. It’s also not to deny that Merritt talks about love with a jaundiced sentimentality that everyone has felt but no one can quite replicate. Or that he hasn’t found new ways of achieving pop’s emotional purposes by hiring idiosyncratic singers to perform compositions that should be all wrong for them—or by hiring crystalline ones and instructing them to “sound bored.” (If you are new to the concept or to Merritt, this last is a much better idea than it sounds.) His music is doggedly thinky without ever being pretentious, and his mysteriousness is somehow playful and humble.
Eban & Charley is the first recording made under Merritt’s own name and not that of one of his avatars—bands that don’t disguise the fact that the man holds the whip hand in all aspects of composition, production, and execution. The disc is a soundtrack for a politically incorrect gay-themed indie film by James Bolton, which, if the first reviews are any indication, is currently stinking up screens in New York and Los Angeles. It’s also mulishly slight: only six sung songs, the whole clocking in at under 40 minutes and characterized by toylike tinklings and foley-artist passages like “Cricket Problem” and the almost seven-minute “Stage Rain,” whose danceability I will leave you to imagine—sound of water spraying, sound of someone brushing and screeching a metal thing over other metal things. Two of the tracks rethink traditional tunes—there’s a version of “O Tannenbaum” that splits the carol into gloomy, clomping bass chords and a trebly single-note melody, and a shivery, melismatic treatment of “Greensleeves” that probably works fine on film.
Perhaps all of it works better when coordinated with the images it was written for—which puts the stay-at-home listener at a real disadvantage, even if the numbers that stand on their own as pop tunes are vintage Merritt. The lilting “Some Summer Day” has delicately syncopated rhythm guitar and Merritt’s always unexpectedly rich baritone bidding goodbye to love—typically, in the album’s very first track with vocals. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” shimmers through the chorus of “Poppyland,” each verse sophisticated and melancholy as Merritt layers his vocals in a beautiful crosshatch pattern, creating a dialogue/argument/consensus with the ragged edges of repeated lines. “Maria Maria Maria” is lovely and rainy and sad, sad, sad—it could nestle in the grooves of any Magnetic Fields record and surprise absolutely no one.
It’s possible that the soundtrack’s recurrent motif of tinny child-size noises is meant as a comment on the film’s controversial central romance—between a 15-year-old boy and a man twice his age. But if so, it would seem that reminding viewers that one half of this pair of lovers is just out of Garanimals isn’t the most sympathy-inducing move. Still, the music is rife with the sound of windup-toy keys turning, tinkling melodies being set in motion, clockwork creatures ticking, and muffled, echoey drums thumping. Contrasted with the spare, glowing pop numbers, many of these tracks sound like nothing more than wan timekeeping: “Cricket Problem,” “Drowned Sailors,” “Titles,” “Tea Party,” and “Victorian Robotics” could be jagged, intellectualist compositions meant to accompany an Eastern European surrealist puppet show. “This Little Ukulele” and “Tiny Flying Player Pianos” are a bit better, with lyrics (albeit very few) and gentle melodies that seem to bow in the middle with romantic weariness—but they nonetheless feature the cheap, high pitches of their title instruments.
Eban & Charley’s last real song, “Water Torture,” is an oddly majestic novelty tune in which Merritt drones a series of silly tongue twisters to a backing of clicks, taps, and deadly serious guitars. It’s somehow beautiful and the furthest thing from ridiculous—no one else is capable of singing “‘Teasing bees is easy,’ wheezed Louise/’These bees are teased’” with such mordant earnestness.
By all accounts, the soundtrack to Eban & Charley is a more persuasive product than the film itself, but it’s disconcerting that Merritt has developed a taste for morbid juvenilia. He has recently composed songs based on the books of his friend Daniel Handler, an amateur accordionist (he appeared on 69 Love Songs) and author (under the name Lemony Snicket) of the smug, undercooked, and overrated A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which the unrelenting menacing of unresourceful children passes for arch melodrama. Until now, Merritt has understood the charms of genuine drama and the emotional weight of fugitive ideas, and his musical regression is a lateral move at best. It’s cute when precocious kids play grand piano; a fully grown genius plinking moodily on a Fisher-Price is quite another matter. CP