Stephin Merritt: On Sincerity, Misery, and the African-American Musical Tradition

Tonight, Stephin Merritt peforms with Lemony Snicket in the Union Square Barnes and Noble. Earlier this week, Max Abelson sat down for some chit-chat with the most infamously white man in downtown indie music.

“All the articles begin, ‘Stephin isn’t such an asshole after all!'” said Stephin Merritt on Monday, the night before the release of his new album.

He was sitting in a lady’s salon chair in 14th Street’s Beauty Bar, with his head beneath an old domed hair dryer. “No one who is not an interviewer has ever called me an asshole,” he said. “People regularly tell me how nice I am.”

It’s hard to imagine niceness when Mr. Merritt’s songs are so forlorn, and his words are so cataclysmic witty, and that voice has such gravity.

But Mr. Merritt is disliked for other reasons besides lyricism. Two years and some months ago, The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones described Mr. Merritt’s musical tastes as those of a rockist cracker. Also, Mr. Frere-Jones wrote: “Get that fucking chihuahua away from me, NOW.” Mr. Merritt has a chihuahua.

Earlier this year, Jessica Hopper continued the conversation, expressing distates for Mr. Merritt’s love of music from “Song of the South.”

John Cook, writing for Slate, took issue. David Carr did a blow-by-blow of the lengthy affair, and wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Merritt “clearly needs help with his bubblegum issues.”

Speaking of which, his new release is under the name The Gothic Archies, which is his side-project for bubblegum-pop Goth. The Tragic Treasury compiles memorably absurd songs written for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

“It’s over-the-top misery,” Mr. Merritt said. “It’s perfectly sincere, but there’s no effort to make it tasteful.”

With polka-like baselines, refrains of harmonized birdcalls, amateur accordions and circus sound effects, it’s his whitest album ever: white like Agnetha and Anni-Frid eating un-toasted Wonder Bread.

Mr. Merritt agrees, sort of. “That’s not insane, just incomplete,” Mr. Merritt said. “I think there’s an enormous African-American tradition of over-the-top misery, going to back to the blues and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins–no, back to spiritualist work songs.”

But “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “The Banana Boat Song,” the examples he brought up, feel more sincere than “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel” or “The World Is a Very Scary Place.”

“If you get too maudlin it’s just funny,” he said. “That doesn’t mean maudlin isn’t sincere.” Tragic Treasury is indeed very maudlin, but it’s also very catchy, and most its songs are textured and even beautiful.

“Finally, Stephin Merritt can sing in the register he was born to sing,” he sighed, meaning that he allowed his voice to go to its deadpan depths. Mr. Merritt claims he sings lower than Johnny Cash, Lee Hazlewood and Tom Waits. This is probably true. “It’s sort of a supernatural ability, kind of like a magical power, except it’s completely useless.”

“I think if you have a really low voice it automatically makes you a good lyricist. No one wants to hear you just say, “C’mon, baby.”

On Friday the 13th, Mr. Merritt will be performing with Lemony Snicket in the Union Square Barnes and Noble, singing lyrics like, “The world is a very scary thing/ I find it’s curled all my toes and it’s curling my mind” or “Even geeks, even other freaks, hate the freakshow.”

Maybe he would stick to straightforward romance if his voice were more like Barry White’s. “Such a sexy baritone,” Mr. Merritt said. “Listen to Barry White when you want to get to third base.”

— Max Abelson