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Some people have heard enough of Stephin Merritt. When I happened to mention the Magnetic Fields at a late-spring bachelor party, one of the grooms-to-be just rolled his eyes. Other folks can’t get enough. The aging indie kids who own every cover of “100,000 Fireflies,” the song that put Merritt and his main combo on the map in the early ’90s, still show up every time he pulls into the Black Cat with new orchestrations and a chip on his shoulder. For everyone else, the band’s new three-discer is a test of our ardor. This passive-aggressive appassionata is both valentine and obstacle, a vexingly long love letter that challenges you to get through it all, then quizzes you on its minutiae. From the moment Merritt drops his card in your parlor tray, 69 Love Songs announces itself as an arbitrarily conceived monument to a prodigal talent. Three hours of songs? It could have been four. Merritt’s positively lousy with the things.
For all its ambition, calculation, and raw pride, 69 Love Songs holds vast reserves of vulnerability, charm, and self-abasement. That’s because these latter qualities always inspirit Merritt’s take on his subject, which is and ever has been bad love—not that there’s any other kind, mind you. His temperament is perfectly in tune with the times. No one speaks anymore of love everlasting, except in historical romances, which, now that the future’s collapsing into the present faster than cyberpunk stragglers can predict, are the closest thing there is to sci-fi, yesterday being foreign enough to make it eligible for the role of tomorrow.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, people fell in love and stayed that way. But ’90s romantics have idealized the ardent fling, the great-love-that-might-have-been, always dramatically cut short before sullen reality can grind it down. Armies of harried housewives and lonely cat ladies cozied up to The Bridges of Madison County’s Robert Kincaid, who had to keep movin’ on when Francesca couldn’t bring herself to bust her humdrum hubby’s heart. The daughters and nieces of those homebodies cuddled up to L’il Leo, a self-sacrificing piece of beefcake Titanic had the good sense to freeze-dry before he could disembark and start dogging around on his beloved with her friends. The fling has come out from under wraps on TV’s Change of Heart, where it is an experiment, potentially juicy but agreed upon in advance by all parties. Meanwhile, middle-aged losers line up to ask Jenny Jones or Ricki Lake to reunite them with their first loves or most exciting sex partners. But when the fling is the apex of expectation, it’s impossible to sustain hope for anything more durable. Love is no longer an exalted state of being; it’s a compromise between lust, boredom, disease, and housekeeping. For participants who refuse to permit love to be work, as therapists counsel, it’s a ride—whether a two-minute steel-coaster thrill or an eight-second bronc-bust. The idea is to make it to the end without getting thrown, then brace yourself for another go.
So when scribes compare Merritt the lyricist with Cole Porter, they pitch his smarts—and his sexuality—correctly. (You can’t deny a wit who totes absurd portmanteaus such as “prowesslessnesslessness” and kills off Ferdinand de Saussure in the name of Holland-Dozier-Holland for the sake of the sentiment as much as the rhyme.) But they get his moment wrong. Cynicism isn’t style, sass, and a temporary salve to the stung anymore; it’s substance.
It’s more than just the sour-grapes dis of the first Rodgers-& songwriting team in “How Fucking Romantic” that gets me thinking this way. I prefer to imagine Merritt as some Beckett-fried Lorenz Hart, damned not to die of pneumonia but to stagger through the emotional wastes of the late 20th century. Merritt knows that falling in love with love is falling for make-believe, but he’s glad to be unhappy as often as not, even though he has learned the hard way that if you serenade your beloved with “My Funny Valentine” he’ll pitch your rhyming dictionary right at your head. What good is it that you love him despite all his faults when he has to start shopping those defects around the instant things go south with you?
Though Merritt’s woe has shaped his art to his time, he knows his craft would have been better suited to the so-called golden age of popular song, enamored as he is of perky melodies, spry metrical digressions, and 3/4 time. He’s a little sore about missing it. And he feels a little trapped. The same sexual revolution that threw open the closet also gave every guy he meets license to be a total dick. Is it any wonder the heavens his forbears raptly lauded now offer no guidance, only a cool, distant glare?
On “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” Merritt declares that “[t]he moon to whom the poets croon/Has given up and died.” Elsewhere, he and the four vocalists he shares the mike with continue to take potshots at the sky, and everywhere reverie loses ground to astronomy—and graphic design. When Claudia Gonson’s love turns blue on “Reno Dakota,” she pegs it as Pantone 292. (That’s two parts Reflex Blue, two parts Process Blue, 12 parts White for those of you who don’t keep your Color Formula Guide by the stereo.)
Merritt’s view is actually sharper when he doesn’t put so fine a point on it. “You need me like the wind/Needs the trees to blow in/Like the moon needs poetry/You need me,” sings Shirley Simms on “Come Back From San Francisco.” Rising then settling through a chain of three-syllable turns, it’s the most finely wrought passage on a set packed with bolder, cleverer twists that don’t hit nearly as hard. The melody reverses direction just when the meaning does, on the “needs” before “poetry.” Betrayal is the inevitable prize of a heart that dotes on the pathetic fallacy.
That this episode stands out in such sharp relief points up the shortcomings of a project that aims to make up in length what it lacks in finesse. 69 Love Songs is billed as a revue, but it plays like a hefty stack of demos. In the past, Merritt has been a production and arrangement whiz, seamlessly melding synthetic sound and organic sense. The current affair employs far too many cooks (well, mostly it’s just tone-chef Stephin bruising handfuls of sonic spices amid his tray-card-filling batterie de cuisine) to concoct something that feels so half-baked. Call “Experimental Music Love,” “Punk Love,” and “Roses” palate cleansers if you must, but that’s giving filler a rather generous reception. The beat cocktail of the Tom Waits-meets-Ken Nordine “Love Is Like Jazz” and the burble-and-squeak of “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long” don’t go down much easier. Guided by vapors, Merritt starts looking like the kind of distracted genius who can be troubled to start too many things and finish too few.
I still refer newcomers who want to see Merritt in top form to 1991’s The Wayward Bus, a carefully pruned 10-song suite delivered by original Fields vocalist Susan Anway. Pulling Phil Spector, ABBA, and the Carter Family together under one tent and uniting the personal and the political in an understated work of deceptive force, it is the product of a man who had gained his chops but remained unsure of his defenses. Freshly poured rue is more poetic, more tactile than the hard-set stuff. There’s still the chance to draw a stick through it, still the possibility that things might not turn out the way you suspect.
Merritt’s earlier masterwork didn’t get the attention it deserved. With subsequent Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, Sixths, and Gothic Archies releases he has built his cult. His present sortie is a grandstanding gesture guaranteed to draw more ink than it warrants (mea culpa). It’s his Sandinista!, a bloated triumvirate of plastic that could have been pared back into the year’s most essential release. It leaves me wondering what the die-hard fan base that enables such largess will make of his Combat Rock.