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Passionless Play

The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (Nonesuch)

Based solely on his songwriting output, it’s impossible to conclude that Stephin Merritt has ever been in love. That may seem a strange claim—after all, Merritt writes love songs almost exclusively, and his best-known work is the very accurately titled 69 Love Songs, a triple album he released in 1999 with his band The Magnetic Fields. Besides, he’s a good-looking, medium-famous gay man who’s lived in Manhattan for the bulk of his adult life. He probably gets to fall in love every other week.
So, OK, the law of averages clearly sides with Merritt here. Still, his lyrics never evince any intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be one half of a real-life romantic couple. Long-term relationships are full of ups and downs and lulls and squabbles and doubts and pragmatic compromises and unexpected pleasures. But Merritt’s love songs avoid such messy specificities. He only sings about love at its two most melodramatically pure extremes: falling in it and falling out of it (especially falling out of it). Those stock themes are Merritt’s stock-in-trade, and he’s unafraid to repeat them over and over. He’s kind of like Shakespeare in that respect. Or a soap-opera writer.

Merritt’s entire songwriting project has more than a hint of cynicism to it. He churns out his love songs with assembly-line efficiency, a fitting work schedule for a guy who idolizes prolific, professional tunesmiths like Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, and anyone who ever toiled nine-to-five in a Brill Building cubicle. His songs are his product, and he makes no attempt to hide that—rather, he emphasizes the artifice of his songs by compartmentalizing them in thematically tidy albums. The countryish 1995 album The Charm of the Highway Strip is all about traveling. 69 Love Songs is a bulk-sized serving of schmaltz, something you’d expect to find on a Costco shelf (right alongside the—say it with me—five-gallon jars of mayonnaise). Each of the song titles on 2004’s i begins with the titular vowel. Merritt’s oeuvre is so fussily organized that one gets the impression he’s one of those weirdos who alphabetizes his CD collection and folds his underwear.
The newest Magnetic Fields album, released earlier this year, is called Distortion. Its title is also its gimmick: While the jaunty pop melodies are familiar, and the lyrics cleverly repackage Merritt’s pet themes (i.e., love’s great—no, actually, love sucks), every instrument on every song is caked in sludge. It’s a serious musical departure for the Fields. Most Magnetic Fields songs are clean and pretty, but Distortion is full of rough edges. Drums splash down into thick pools of reverb. Vacuum-cleaner white noise froths and buzzes and moans. And then there’s the guitar, flanging furiously behind the beat on “The Nun’s Litany,” gurgling like a smoker’s cough in “Xavier Says,” and obnoxiously bleating throughout “Too Drunk to Dream.”

Not too obnoxiously, though. The album’s called Distortion, not Dissonance; there’s way more Jesus and Mary Chain than My Bloody Valentine on it. In fact, in recent interviews Merritt has been citing J&MC’s pathfinding 1985 album Psychocandy as his sonic inspiration. It’s easy to hear where he’s coming from. Psychocandy’s aural aesthetic—think Pet Sounds run through a paper-shredder—is smeared all over Distortion. Lurking behind the bubbly pop bass-line of “Please Stop Dancing” are the cutest little feedback squeals you’ve ever heard.
Merritt’s also been claiming that he painstakingly constructed Distortion’s distortion over the course of a year and a half. “There are no mistakes of any kind on this album,” he told the New York Observer. On the surface, this appears to be one of those implausible statements musicians sometimes make when they’re on the interview circuit, like when Lou Reed swore to Lester Bangs that he embedded Beethoven symphonies within the feedback cacophony of Metal Machine Music. Still, I don’t doubt it. After all, Merritt is an avowed aesthete 4 life; he loves structure and predictability and formal neatness. All those juicy, cascading layers of noise on Distortion really do sound as though they were put together lovingly and meticulously, like a 1000-piece puzzle of Guernica.
For all its controlled chaos, Distortion is still a pop album, and because the song forms are familiar verse/chorus/verse—every song clocks in at a comfy three minutes or so—it’s not a particularly challenging one. But it’s an excellent pop album, replete with simple aesthetic pleasures. Check out how the haunting melody of “Till the Bitter End” perfectly conveys just how scary the phrase “I will love you till the bitter end” really is. Co–lead vocalist Shirley Simms just kills that line—it’s her finest moment on the album, but the singing is strong throughout, Simms’s urban-cowgirl twang alternating with Merritt’s dour baritone. And both vocalists sound pretty witty singing Merritt’s clever lyrics. “Zombie Boy” glistens with sexual double entendres (“No blood ever drips when I widen your holes,” Merritt sings as he assembles his undead lover), and any song that climaxes with the refrain “I hate California girls” is okay in my book.

Over the last two decades, Merritt has accrued a sizeable cult following, of which I suppose I’m a part: In addition to being the best gift I ever gave, 69 Love Songs is my all-time favorite album. But for all his devoted fans, Merritt sure does seem to rub a lot of folks the wrong way. (New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones, for example. Google “Stephin Merritt rockist cracker” if you must rehash the whole dumb controversy. John Cook’s take in Slate is smart and definitive.)
Flimsily evidenced accusations of racism notwithstanding, there are plenty of other reasons Merritt makes folks squeamish, such as his formal, mannered approach to songwriting. Merritt’s never cast himself as a slave-to-the-muse artiste, burning to reinvent the songwriting wheel. Nope, he’s just a pro: Give him a pad, a pencil, and a cozy bar to sit in and he’ll feed a few bucks to the jukebox, think for a bit, sip a cocktail, whip out a half-dozen perfectly structured love songs, tip his bartender, and still make it home in time for Tyra. His lyrics, although dotted with idiosyncratic fillips (tricky rhymes like petunia/junior, ending every line with an enjambment, stuff like that) are so single-minded in their pursuit of melodrama they can’t help but ring false. Merritt doesn’t write about love, the imperfect real thing; he writes about L!O!V!E!, the hyper-idealized trope. Distortion has its share of curveballs, like that California-hating song, but it also has six or seven classic “love sucks” breakup songs. We don’t know anything about those songs’ protagonists except that they’re heartbroken: That’s all the data Merritt gives us; it’s all he needs to write a love lyric. He can write an entire song about crying, and has, many times. (Seemingly all his songs are about crying or dancing.)

The ranks of indie or indie-associated musicians writing coherent love songs these days are shamefully thin—there’s Merritt, John Darnielle [see Grant Moser’s review of the latest release by Darnielle’s Mountain Goats in this issue—ed.], Liz Phair, Craig Finn, Jenny Lewis, and not too many others. All of those guys and gals adhere to the confessional, detail-rich tone that singer-songwriters have been milking since the early seventies—all except Merritt, who remains devoted to simplistic sentiment:

I gotta get too drunk to dream, because I only dream of you

Now that you’re free of me at last
Your time is your own, go have a blast
And I’ll dream alone

Oh, Mr. Mistletoe
Hanging above
Please go away
I’ve got no one to love

If Merritt drew upon any of his actual experiences to write such lyrics, he’s filtered them through a considerable amount of irony and broad-stroke sentimentality. Put simply, there never seems to be any Stephin Merritt in Stephin Merritt’s songs, an effect reinforced by his dour, expressionless singing. It’s no surprise that Merritt is often criticized for being cold, cynical, passionless.
But come on. The nebulous “passion” is an exceedingly unsophisticated criterion for judging art. Most singer-songwriters would love you to think that they’re digging deep into their personal histories to write searching, emotional, depths-plumbing songs. But Merritt knows you’re too smart to really believe that, so he’s more upfront about his artifice. Every love song he writes self-consciously announces itself as such. He’s like a magician who shows you that every card in his trick deck is the ace of spades, then asks you to pick a card, any card.

Ultimately, Merritt’s love songs aren’t about love, they’re about love songs. Admittedly, because they’re so transparently overaestheticized, they run the risk of devolving into mere parody or camp. But with a few rare exceptions (the throwaway genre exercises “Punk Love” and “Love Is Like Jazz,” both from 69 Love Songs), they never do. And don’t tell Merritt, but sometimes they even manage to be emotionally affecting. I have a hard time listening to “It’s Only Time,” from i, without getting a little blubbery. See, that’s the thing about love songs, and Merritt’s love songs in particular: Even at their most overwrought and melodramatic and cynical and self-reflexive, they still have the power to hit you right here. Maybe the man’s got a heart after all.


Matthew Ozga

Matthew Ozga is a writer living in Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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