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The songs of Stephin Merritt float in the space between how love feels and how it’s supposed to feel, or, worse, how it did feel, but only for a weekend at the beach four years ago. Merritt sings his three-minute tales of regret with charming dissociation, like a synth-pop Oscar Wilde. His characters recriminate, they rue, they give up hope, but they are always ready to be amused.
Merritt produces records as the Magnetic Fields and also juggles several side projects in New York, where he lives with dozens of instruments, 20 synthesizers among them, and his recording equipment. He processes and reprocesses sounds with all the toys, then layers them onto a simple skeleton of verse-chorus-verse, hooks to die for, and short, usually rhyming lines. Things that sound like (or are) harpsichords and tubas and Korg Poly 800s and static swirl together like Phil Spector’s club mix of some Joy Division-Partridge Family-Leonard Cohen hybrid.
The record-making Magnetic Fields is mostly Merritt in his pajamas. A few ringers come in to add instrumental tracks; guest vocalists are sent tapes to sing onto. Rather than twiddle knobs onstage, Merritt has opted to tour with himself on guitar, Claudia Gonson on piano, Sam Davol on cello, and John Woo on banjo. “It’s practically a bluegrass band,” says Merritt, who spoke with me before the Magnetic Fields’ show at the Black Cat last Saturday and briefly afterward as he darted around the club, fretting that the cigarette machine might not take bills.
The brand-new quartet resonated in unexpected ways that night. The banjo was the velvet monkey wrench, the sound that doesn’t fit but eventually makes sense, which Merritt achieves on records by hooking a Slinky to his guitar pickup or using a Radio Shack oscillator as a theremin. The banjo also added a mournful fillip to Davol’s drone, changing the texture but not the mood of the disco-Goth “Smoke and Mirrors” and “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do” from the Fields’ last album, Get Lost. Gonson, who is usually the band’s drummer, pounded out what backbeat was needed on the guts-exposed piano, while Davol’s cello case stood in visually on traps, propped upright back and center.
Merritt’s vocals on the songs from the first two Fields records were as big a twist as the instrumentation: Susan Anway sang on 1990’s Distant Plastic Trees and 1991’s The Wayward Bus in an ethereal soprano that couldn’t be farther from Merritt’s sardonic drawl. In concert, he transformed these after-the-happy-ending girl-group songs: A slowed-down “Summer Lies” sounded more like a Renaissance ballad, but remained beautifully despondent. As Merritt says of his work, “It’s about the songs.” The quiet, spare show showcased just how rich those songs are.
They follow the three-minute pop song formula, which is as strict as a sonnet’s. By staying inside those lines, Merritt illuminates another murky space, the one between dumb songs and smart people. What Brian Wilson does because he’s crazy, Merritt does ironically: He grieves for adults tangled up in teeny-bopper dreams. Merritt, however, also catches the embarrassment of ever having believed the Top 40 version of love.
Unlike most of his pop peers, Merritt uses irony to sharpen rather than to dull. The lines “You won’t be happy with me/But give me one more chance/You won’t be happy anyway” from Plastic Trees’ “100,000 Fireflies” are as wretched as they are funny. On 1994’s Holiday, Merritt turned his jaded eye from tru luv to the whole American dream. The bouncy “Desert Island” rhapsodizes, “We’ll develop muscles/ From cracking coconuts/ Let our clothing drop off/ Feel each other’s butts/Start a better country/ Where we can get things done/Make a fortune turning/
Sand to silicon.”
Merritt says his inspiration for his songs “is usually another song.” The Johnny Cash-June Carter “Jackson” seems to be the taking-off point for the Fields’ most country record, 1994’s Charm of the Highway Strip. The opener, “Lonely Highway,” flips the who-needs-you classic on its back and finds guilt buried in the bravado: “I’m never going back to Jackson/I couldn’t bear to show my face/I nearly killed you with my drinking/Wouldn’t be caught dead in that place.” Merritt disabuses me of my theory, however, first arguing that Lee Hazelwood wrote “Jackson” and then revealing that the album was in fact inspired by the 1962 zombie movie Carnival of Souls.
Get Lost, from 1995, was a tribute to Visage, whom Merritt calls “an early ’80s New Romantic group with lots of makeup and fashion-magazine alienation.” That album confirmed Merritt’s growing preoccupation with self-mocking gloom, which has its roots in his role as lead singer. “My voice has a real strong flavor of, you know, death and despair,” Merritt says. “I just can’t sing a happy song and make people happy.” He married his loves for the macabre and the bubblegum in last year’s silly Gothic Archies EP, whose concept is contained completely in the band name. (The Monkees-style anthem goes: “Kick off your shoes/Come join the show/Get the blues and /Let yourself go…to the city of the damned.”)
Get Lost is also the most gay-sounding Magnetic Fields record, continuing Merritt’s sly assault on indie-rock machismo. Merritt has always given women singers occasional songs with male narrators and himself songs from viewpoints female, male, gay, and straight. “If you can only identify with members of your own gender, you don’t have enough imagination for Western civilization,” Merritt once declared in an online interview. Hipsters pay lip service to tolerance, but musical homophobia, which stretches back to the 1970s and “disco sucks,” is subtler and more ingrained. Having won over straight men with his smart and gorgeous songs, on Get Lost, Merritt makes them swallow the broody keyboards and blase beats of the dreaded hairdo bands.
He is currently finishing up a second record by the 6ths, his multisinger side project. The first 6ths record, 1995’s Wasps Nests, featured vocals by Chris Knox, Barbara Manning, Mark Robinson, and other underground stars. Merritt and his pianist-drummer-manager-best friend Claudia Gonson won’t reveal who sings on the new record, because, Gonson says, “we thought it would be more spectacular” to keep that secret until the upcoming release. She does drop that “it’s largely European singers, and the theme is chanson style.” Though it’s impossible to know how they’ll be orchestrated, the new songs the band played at Black Cat, particularly “As You Turn to Go,” have great torch potential. A song called “Washington D.C.” got its world premiere during the long encore, to the surprise of Gonson, Davol, and Woo and the delight of the small crowd of devotees. Merritt haltingly sang the lyrics from a notebook, which he then displayed as a progress report for the next Magnetic Fields collection, 69 Love Songs. “That’s a lot of songs,” he announced, flipping the scribbled-on pages outward.
I assume someone so prolific about despair can’t be romantically fulfilled, it would be like finding out that Julia Child hates food or that Courtney Love is actually sort of sweet. Yet when asked if he’s happy in love, Merritt answers, almost demurely, “Now I am.” (I’m emboldened to ask such a Tiger Beat question by the bubbly fanzine Chickfactor, which often features Merritt’s hilarious, nosy interviews of other low-profile stars.) Yet later in our conversation, Merritt assuages any fears that contentment is seriously threatening his artistic output. He mentions his favorite haunt, a gay bar in his East Village neighborhood that has a great jukebox. I ask if it’s a special spot for him and the new boyfriend who’s making him happy. He savors the gap between assumption and reality for a perfect beat, then answers, “I’ve actually only had the new happy boyfriend for, um, a week.”