The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge).
Stephin Merritt, a 30-ish Yonkers-born resident of the East Village, pals around with a close-knit group of followers and collaborators, always carrying with him, these days, a Chihuahua named Irving, as in Berlin. Right now, his work inspires sane pop insiders to make enormous claims for him as being just possibly the greatest living American songwriter right now. The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs –all 69 of them written by Mr. Merritt–is the kind of album that can inspire wildly strong allegiances. This happens not only because Mr. Merritt is good, which he is, wickedly; it is because he does something hardly anyone else even attempts right now: He writes songs .
On this new album, a triple CD, Mr. Merritt steps out. Sometimes he is as irony-soaked as Warren Zevon, as miniaturistically brilliant as David Baerwald, as musically omnivorous as Elvis Costello. The songs explore country, drawing-room, electro-pop, new music and cabaret styles, running toward juicy hooks here, elongated melodic passages there, hick chic and gay obsessions and genre jokes. But Mr. Merritt never suffers from any loss of identity. While getting spot-on work here and there from singers like L.D. Beghtol, Dudley Klute, Shirley Simms and his best friend and manager Claudia Gonson, he is always himself.
One of the 69 songs, “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off,” is narrated by a farmer who is a strange hybrid of Mister Green Jeans and Austin Powers. Incorrigibly cool, randy and high-stepping through a quick country-rock beat, the man boasts in a low tenor that his heart behaves like, well, “a chicken with its head cut off.” His wife doesn’t understand him; “I’m for free love,” he explains, “and I’m in free fall.”
Another song, “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” traipses off into shattering piano nostalgia. In it, a reader of True Romance magazine decries his lover’s decision to leave him. In the mind of the narrator, the romance is not over, and he sees himself and his lover dancing through his “Busby Berkeley dreams.” In long-lined melodic phrases just upon the point of breaking into soft shrieks, Mr. Merritt gets all Noël Cowardish: “Well, darling,” he sings, “you may do your worst/ because you’ll have to kill me first.”
Still another song–a new-wavish rocker floating on a silken boomerang of a synthesizer riff–is titled “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure.” The narrator identifies himself as “just a great composer” (although instantly afterward, in a brilliant touch, a chortling clutch of hand claps undercuts the claim). Saussure pronounces love flatly incomprehensible. This enrages the composer, who, defending the empirical honor of 60’s Motown, impulsively shoots the old semiologist. Mr. Merritt sums it up in a neat, cleverly rhymed couplet invoking the names of Motown’s greatest songwriting team: “It’s well and kosher to say you don’t understand/ But this is for Holland-Dozier-Holland!”
Then there’s the one about circus performers. Breaking up, the song’s panicked narrator argues, would be tantamount to the end of nonstop touring, and velvet ropes, and gainfully employed stagehands–clowns. The song is called “Promises of Eternity,” and during the chorus, as declamations of “I can’t let this happen to you” and “Don’t you let it happen to me” unfurl, you remember the Who’s Pete Townshend, years ago, maintaining that Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” amounted to one intense portrayal of domestic love.
Mr. Merritt–who occasionally writes criticism for Time Out New York and, at least on one memorable occasion, torched without mercy a bunch of then-current singles in Details –has all this decade inhabited that bratty little universe of obscure labels, smallish budgets and high I.Q.’s known as indie rock. During the first part of the 90’s, indie rock is understood to have unearthed Nirvana, the decade’s most lavishly loved rock band by fans and press alike; lately, though, indie rock has returned to the margins of the record business, the home of querulous Americans like the husband-and-wife duo Quasi (now divorced) and rarefied imports like the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. As best-selling hard rock such as Limp Bizkit has grown so loutish that even Pearl Jam fans can’t really hang with it, the outer reaches–as critic Eric Weisbard noted glumly a while back in The New York Times –has gone high-toned and pristine, a stereo lab of sounds and strikingly put notions. Rowdy, that’s just for the Limp Bizkit masses.
None of which ever amounted, as one of his characters might put it, to a hill of beans for Mr. Merritt. On the records he previously made under the name the Magnetic Fields–the inverted truck-stop music of The Charm of the Highway Strip and the tweaked Europop of Holiday , both from 1994 are the best known–Mr. Merritt played around with inexpensive, keyboard-based sounds that added up to what might be called a harsh-minded prettiness. Yet sound compelled him nonetheless, and on a 1995 project like Wasps’ Nests , his only major-label work to date, Mr. Merritt took a Quincy Jones tack, writing and arranging for indie-rock stars and starlets like Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow and the Chicago-based singer-songwriter Barbara Manning. He subsequently made variously witty and slight records with groups with names like Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies. Now, with 69 Love Songs , he is giving his fans and would-be fans a chance to see what he’s made of more clearly.
Sometimes, the songs on this gently ambitious album settle into tall-tale mode. In “Papa Was a Rodeo,” Mr. Merritt sings, “Papa was a rodeo” and “Mama was a rock-and-roll band.” Home, he sings, following along the template of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” was “anywhere with diesel gas,” and love was “a trucker’s hand.” The couple in the song goes on to enjoy “the romance of the century.”
In another song, a funny duet, Ms. Gonson, in her spectacularly lucid and quick-witted soprano, wonders: “Are you out of love with me?” and, a little later, “Do I drive you up a tree?” To which Mr. Merritt replies, “Yeah! Oh, yeah!” the phrase that gives the song its name. The exchange goes on and on, against a guitar speed-jangle the listener comes to want to strangle, and the mix of her interior sadness and exterior hilarity grows deeply unusual, as Mr. Merritt just continues to seem exhausted. It’s a real end-of-the-century Honeymooners moment. Several songs later, Mr. Merritt casts Ms. Gonson in the role of the late Duchess of Windsor: “We got so many tchotchkes/ We’ve practically emptied the Louvre.”
Then there’s the song about pretending to be bunny rabbits …