The Magnetic Fields

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine.

By Doug Wolk

Published July 9, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

just how famous is Stephin Merritt? You can look at it two ways: He's famous if you've ever heard of him, but no more than a name to anybody outside his circle. Within the independent pop community, he's a legendary songwriter, famed for the wit and grace of his lyrics and the classic elegance of his melodies. (Songs he's penned for his main band, the Magnetic Fields, have been covered by Lush, White Town, Superchunk, Lida Husik and half a dozen others.) When he assembled a project called the 6ths to work with guest vocalists a couple of years ago, singers from Mitch Easter to Luna's Dean Wareham to Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley lined up to have first crack at a new Stephin Merritt song. He's also got enough cachet to get away with two more side projects, the Gothic Archies (his "goth-bubblegum" band), and now the Future Bible Heroes.

Merritt has declared himself to be influenced by bubblegum pop and experimental music and nothing else, but "Memories Of Love" is considerably closer to pop. The Heroes' first album, "Memories" is a collaboration with Chris Ewen, keyboardist from '80s electro-pop cult faves Figures On A Beach. Merritt provides the words and vocals, Ewen the music and instrumentation in full-on 1987 nouveau-wavo synth-pop style -- we're talking Paul Hardcastle, Bronski Beat, "If You Leave"-era OMD. It's pure "Romy And Michelle's High School Reunion" music, and if you can deal with that, you'll love it.

Alternating with Merritt on vocals is Claudia Gonson, the Magnetic Fields' longtime drummer and manager, who sings lead here for the first time. Merritt is famous (after a fashion) for convincing the vocalists he works with to get only the words and the notes across, and nothing else -- to present the song, rather than perform it. Gonson rises to the challenge, singing sweetly but without a hint of inflection. "Real Summer," a sneer at "summer's promise honored in the breach," ends with a snap about the radio: "The Beach Boys, hell, they might as well play 'Winter Wonderland' -- summer, my ass." But Gonson glides through it so affectlessly that you might not ever notice the words without reading the lyric sheet.

The words that can be made out are mostly excellent, if not quite up to the Magnetic Fields' usual standards. Merritt can mix romanticism and murderous wit like nobody's business -- he once described a Ferris wheel ride that was "under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand" -- and writing about the brokenhearted puts him on home turf: "You pretend to be the moon/Looking down upon us all/Always taking a dim view/Feeling cold and blue and small." He loves mangled clichis -- like "you look at strangers like a kid in a candy store" from "Hopeless" -- and improbable rhymes -- "There's no use in even trying/Because it's hopeless/All of our dreams are dying/Of overdoses/All of our plans are lying/in ten-car road-wrecks."

Ewen's music is sometimes the match of the words, sometimes not. "Blond Adonis," a complaint about the "grand Teutonic plague" of gay culture's cult of the body, gets a setting that's appropriately Kraftwerk-y in texture, but it's a melody that ultimately goes nowhere. Still, this is Merritt's show, the kind of deliberately synthetic, genuinely sad, deeply funny music for which he's famous -- that is, if you already know who he is.
June 9, 1997

Doug Wolk


Related Topics ------------------------------------------