Stephin Merritt is a contradictory character: an avowed ABBA aficionado with a monumental misanthropic streak, a recondite home recorder with Spector-scope ambitions, an incurable romantic afflicted with jadedness that borders on the terminal. In short, the reclusive mastermind of the continually transmuting Magnetic Fields is the quintessential pop eccentric, dispatching universally touching songs to a world he’d just as soon have no contact with.
The Boston native spent some time on New York’s embryonic club-kid scene before returning to his hometown to distill what would become the Magnetic Fields’ formula — a combination of saccharine synth-pop plinking and doleful narratives delivered in deadpan voices so uninvolved you’d swear the singers were reading a foreign language phonetically. At first, Merritt relied on singer Susan Anway (whose voice, at its best, recalls a pooped Tracey Thorn) to channel his tales of lost — or generally unconsummated — love. On Distant Plastic Trees, they’re explicit both in terms of lust (“Railroad Boy”) and self-loathing (“Falling in Love With the Wolfboy”). The baroque pop structures of songs like “Smoke Signals” are redolent of the classics Merritt clearly holds dear, but his impressionistic wordplay — which often alights on bracing, upsetting images — seldom settles into simple cliché. He’s more prone to string together non sequiturs that start out absurdist but end up eviscerating, most notably in “100,000 Fireflies” (later covered by Superchunk), which kicks off with the confession “I’ve got a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself.”
While every bit as synthetic, The Wayward Bus is considerably more twee. Merritt again puts words in Anway’s mouth; she bills and coos over skeletal backing that directs attention to the most self-involved depresso tales this side of Morrissey. The singer does an admirable job of negotiating the seas of cheese that comprise “Tokyo á Go-Go” and the Gallic “Suddenly There Is a Tidal Wave” — which concludes with a wish to be reincarnated as Pippi Longstocking (!). There’s a certain amount of charm here, but keep the insulin handy. (In a bout of discographical confusion, the import-only Distant Plastic Trees was included in the PoPuP CD of The Wayward Bus; minus one track, the albums were subsequently reissued as an official co-billed twofer by Merge.)
At this point, Merritt decided he no longer needed a mouthpiece and began crooning his own songs in a splendid baritone. On The House of Tomorrow — as close to “rock” as the Magnetic Fields is likely to get — he actually bears a passing vocal resemblance to Morrissey in the earliest days of the Smiths, particularly on the swooning “Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring.” What’s still most striking, however, is Merritt’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of oddball rejoinders, including references to a lover who can “look like a Swiss army knife with wings, dance like a Hindu deity” and be “best friends with Timothy Leary.” What was that about the brown acid again?
Holiday, which, like most Magnetic Fields recordings, accessorizes Merritt’s Casio structures with the unconventional bookends of Johny Blood’s tuba and Sam Davol’s cello, is an airily low-key effort. Merritt’s droopy-lidded delivery not only suits the nonchalant air of regret that imbues songs like “Deep Sea Diving Suit,” it adds a charming vulnerability to the openly gay singer’s boy-crazy anticipation in “Desert Island” and “Take Ecstasy With Me.” The album is equally saturated with innocence and decadence, but the balance is likely to seem right only to those who can imagine the latent beauty of a landscape like the one Merritt conjures in “Strange Powers”: “On the Ferris Wheel, looking out on Coney Island / Under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand…”
Although you have to admire Merritt’s ability to weave his synthetic fabrics into gossamer threads, there are certain places where only the real thing will do, as evidenced by the ill-advised synth-country foray of The Charm of the Highway Strip. Rather than revel in the Casio artifice at which he excels, Merritt seems too eager to duplicate authentic instrumentation, blunting the impact of songs like “Lonely Highway,” which appropriates snatches of Lee Hazlewood’s “Jackson.” Likewise, the knowing attitude that can be charming in his pure pop ditties sounds unpleasantly smug in “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song.” There are moments (like “Born on a Train”) that simulate a fortuitous stretch of radio crosstalk projecting Scott Walker into the middle of the Grand Ole Opry, but for the most part, The Charm of the Highway Strip is hardly a fantastic voyage.
Fortunately, Merritt returned to his laboratory on Get Lost. More intricately layered than most of the band’s work — new accoutrements include ukulele (played by the band’s longtime drummer/manager Claudia Gonson), banjo, even bass guitar — songs like “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do” and “You and Me and the Moon” reveal a dancey new wave sensibility. That coincides with a marked downturn in the cynicism quotient: “Why I Cry” and “The Dreaming Moon,” while delivered as frigidly as ever, force Merritt to reveal a lovable side in spite of himself.
Then came the masterwork, an album that elevated Magnetic Fields from cult fandom to serious artistic consideration. 69 Love Songs is, simply, a classic. In breadth, ambition and panoramic brilliance, Merritt’s work merits a place in the pantheon with such undisputed treasures as Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Exile on Main Street, London Calling, Thriller and Nevermind. The songs (there are, indeed, 69 of them) cover essentially every angle of romance and every pop idiom, from first blush to fatalistic break-ups, from cheerleader chants to free jazz. Even the miscues, of which there are exactly three (one on each disc, conveniently), are rendered bearable by the inspired marvels that surround them. Thanks to the low-tech production values, one hardly notices that the predominant instruments are keyboards and ukuleles. As a result, when even the simplest guitars (especially bass) do show up, they sound special. The vocals by Merritt, Gonson, Dudley Klute, LD Beghtol and Shirley Simms add to the album’s embracing illusion of ease by confidently barreling through their slight imperfections.
And the songs…oh, those songs. Merritt deliriously flouts hackneyed rock’n’roll convention with such lyrics as “We are nothing (whoa-oh, whoa-oh!)” and “Was my whole life just a lie? / Yeah! Oh, yeah!” Not missing a dimension, he also offers his best tunes to such ingenious sentiments as “There’s an hour of sunshine for a million years of rain / But somehow that always seems to be enough” (from “Sweet Lovin’ Man”) and “Whining and pining is wrong, and so / On and so forth, of course, of course / But no, you can’t have a divorce” (from “Busby Berkeley Dreams”). And in perhaps the set’s cleverest lyric, he weaves a bull’s-eye of a simile in “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,” concluding that, “a bottle of gin is not like love.” In fact, the most profound way to pinpoint the awe-inspiring stature of 69 Love Songs is to acknowledge the acute futility in attempting to convey its essence in a handful of prose. So there. (The set is available as separate discs or a box set with a booklet containing enlightening track- by-track commentary in the booklet. Don’t be a cheap dolt: buy the box.)
The 6ths was the first of Merritt’s myriad side projects (the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes are others) to see the light of day — on a major label, no less — and it’s appropriately enigmatic. Wasps’ Nests allows him to fully cultivate the Phil Spector/Joe Meek side of his personality by putting fourteen singers through the paces of his original creations with a rigor evident in the precise dispassion used by each. Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow mumbles through a downcast “In the City in the Rain” without losing his slacker cool, while Unrest frontman Mark Robinson turns in a credible approximation of Merritt’s own style on the bossa nova-styled “Puerto Rico Way.” Since Merritt has constantly pointed to ABBA as an inspiration, it’s appropriate that he should be most successful in spinning confections around sweetly impassive female voices: here, he links gloriously with Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher on “Looking for Love (In the Hall of Mirrors),” Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley for “Movies in My Head” and Helium’s Mary Timony on “All Dressed Up in Dreams.” Think of it as bubblegum that bites back.
The 6ths’ Hyacinths and Thistles was recorded before 69 Love Songs but released subsequent to it. Compared with the first 6ths record, this places more emphasis on torch singing, with the likes of Marc Almond, Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy taking lead vocals. Inconsistencies in both songwriting and performance make this set less than essential, although the highlights do show signs of the incredible garden Merritt was about to plant. Hannon’s turn, “The Dead Only Quickly,” is a delicious morsel, and Clare Grogan (once of Altered Images) loses none of her oddly enchanting touch in “Night Falls Like a Grand Piano.” Bob Mould offers a beautifully fragile rendition of “He Didn’t” (the best melody of the bunch), and Katherine Whalen of Squirrel Nut Zippers is alluringly coquettish on “You You You You You” (the other best melody in the bunch). The closer, “Oahu,” is an adequate, normal-length pop song with about 30 gratuitous minutes of keyboard whoosh tacked on. It’s an apt representation of the occasional indulgences this disc would have been better off without.
The Future Bible Heroes are Merritt, Gonson and keyboardist Christopher Ewen, whose pungently nostalgic new wave instrumental tracks on Memories of Love recall the early-’80s technococtions of OMD, Spandau Ballet and Heaven 17. Bound for a place of honor on the shelf right next to the Pulsars’ brilliant adventures in the same epoch, the album is a kitsch-free time tunnel of lush allure, subtle delights and teasing juxtapositions. “I may drive my woody down to Sandcastle Beach,” Gonson sings in “Real Summer” while the synthesizers percolate unexpected incongruity into surf music. In her cool voice, “Hopeless” grips romantic despair (“There’s no use even trying because it’s hopeless / All of our dreams are dying of overdoses”) like the empty shot glass in a dive bar. Merritt announces “Death Opened a Boutique” with perfect indifference, but warms up to the solipsistic sexuality of “Blond Adonis”; the mocking title track implies that he prefers Kodak moments to the real thing. Memories of Love‘s singular achievement is conjuring up a false recollection fully equal to the era it invokes.