Irresistible force

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields may be the best writer of love songs around today. But that doesn't mean he has to be nice.

Published May 1, 2004 5:42PM (EDT)

Last fall, while recording the latest Magnetic Fields record, "i" (due out on Tuesday), Stephin Merritt also found time to attend the Yasujiro Ozu film festival at Lincoln Center. Not just a film here or there, but all 36 of them, shown over the course of a month. "I don't usually see movies that aren't part of festivals. I'm not going to see any of the Orson Welles movies at the Film Forum because I wasn't around for the beginning of the festival," Merritt told me, with a trace of the pride that deeply obsessive people tend to have about their obsessions. "Ozu was important to the making of the record, actually. I had a book about 'Tokyo Story' sitting on a music stand to remind me to sing as if I were an Ozu actor, not putting my own little ego into the role, but just delivering the lines."

This is a strange thing to say, particularly for someone working in popular music, where vocal distinctiveness is prized, where we expect singers to emote and where the singer's ego, whether little or big, is so often exactly the point. It cuts to the heart of what is so unusual about Stephin Merritt and his music.

Although Merritt, who won't reveal his age but is likely in his late 30s, has been releasing records since 1990, his fame was limited to indie-afficionados until the release, in 1999, of a three-disc set by his band the Magnetic Fields titled, very accurately, "69 Love Songs."

"It's just a great title," Merritt told me. "Even if it hadn't been a good record, it probably would have been written about, just because of the title and the concept."

And write about it they did, nearly every magazine and newspaper that covers music, with reviews ranging from the delirious to the merely extremely positive. Suddenly, Merritt was being talked about as one of the great songwriters of his generation. Instead of playing small rock clubs downtown, he was performing "69 Love Songs" at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center as part of their "American Songbook" series. This kind of attention led to a contract with Nonesuch Records, a label that has been assembling a roster of the world's pop aristocracy -- artists like Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Wilco.

Speaking to people I greatly admire tends to make me very nervous, and judging from articles I found online, I had reason to be nervous speaking to Merritt. Almost everyone who interviews him mentions how prickly he can be, and some even portray him as a nasty man who derives great pleasure from torturing poor, innocent journalists. Although he's ferociously intelligent and quick, Merritt speaks very slowly, the better to polish his impeccably phrased responses, and his conversation is interspersed with lengthy, ambiguous pauses. Often, after a long pause, I'd ask a question, only to be interrupted and realize that he was, in fact, in the middle of a particularly drawn out response. Other times I'd be sure that he was in the middle of a sentence, and then realize, after 15 seconds of awkward silence, that he was finished with his response and waiting for another question.

But it's Merritt's intolerance for questions or statements he finds stupid that makes him so intimidating. The interview got off to a shaky start when I asked him if his new record's title "i" was derived from the fact that all but one of the songs on his new record were written in the first person.

"No," he replied, in the tone of someone explaining the obvious to a particularly slow child, "On '69 Love Songs' most of the songs are in first person as well. Actually, most of everybody's songs are in the first person." And, in a nicely poetic afterthought, "If they're not invitations to dance, they're first person."

Later we were talking about Björk, and I mentioned how innovative I thought she was. Merritt looked a little incredulous and asked me what I was talking about. This should have been easy for me: first of all, the idea that Björk is an innovative force in popular music is widely accepted; secondly, I'd written about it already. But feeling tongue-tied, I stammered for a moment, and then said something about the way she used non-rhyming lyrics, and strange, twisted phrase structures that were rare in popular music. This unleashed a minor tirade, albeit in the same monotone voice, with just an extra touch of pedantry.

"Non-rhymed lyrics have been around since Milton. Most of the blues, much of folk music, especially outside Britain, half of Madonna. But what makes you think that non-rhyming is interesting or revolutionary? And as for her unusual phrase structures, it's actually just rambling, and because of her rambling, I don't tend to remember her songs. There's a reason for repetition, which is that it's an aid to memory." Then adding what could be the opening of a Stephin Merritt manifesto on music, "I think formlessness is not the way to go in popular music. More form, I think, is the answer."

Suitably chastened, I moved onto the safe and completely non-Björk-related topic of drummers, I received this spectacular run-on: "One of my favorite drummers is Mick Fleetwood, who keeps incredible time, but is always doing interesting variations on the beat, and in the most repetitive songs, he never seems to play exactly the same thing twice, and yet he sounds very simple, so I think he's a genius, which brings me to demolishing your Björk thesis with Stevie Nicks, and the song 'Dreams' off of Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumors,' which rhymes, if at all, only every 30 seconds."

Merritt starts humming to himself to double-check how often it rhymes, then adds, "Maybe when she feels like it, there's a rhyme tossed in. It's a very rambling melody, yet quite beautiful, over a simple two-chord progression." Then, with deep sarcasm and great pleasure, "I would say that Stevie Nicks is an important precursor to Björk, perhaps surpassing her in artistry."

Snippiness comes naturally to Merritt, and his default stance, toward both himself and others, is critical rather than appreciative. As a music writer for Time Out New York (a job he quit a few years ago because "I don't want to run into people I've just savaged, and I don't want to have to review only records that I like") he wrote articulate, minutely descriptive, devilishly funny reviews, which often delighted in trashing the music under consideration. His annual roundups of Christmas albums were particularly notable masterpieces of mockery. A number of times during our conversation, unable to resist a good line, he'd say critical (and very amusing) things about other musicians, only to regret it, and ask me not to print what he'd said. "I don't want to say bad things about people in print. I'm happy to talk about things I like, but I don't like being asked if I like other artists, because I say snippy, critical things." Merritt isn't mean, he's just very aware of the faults in everything around him. When I asked him if he enjoyed listening to his new record, he replied flatly, "I just hear all the mistakes."

For the benefit of the uninitiated, a brief description of Merritt's oeuvre is in order: He has a deep voice, comically deep, coming, as it does, out of his barely 5-foot frame. As he put it, "I can usually sing along with Gene Martin an octave down." For the Magnetic Fields, Merritt composes all of the music and plays most of it and, at this point, he does all of the singing as well, though the band does have three other members: Claudia Gonson, Merritt's longtime collaborator and manager, on piano, cellist Sam Davol, and guitarist John Woo. It's by far Merritt's most successful project, but it's just one of many. His other bands include the Future Bible Heroes (electro-pop), the 6ths (guest vocalists singing Merritt songs), the Gothic Archies ("rock-bubblegum pop"), and the Three Terrors, who assemble for one-time-only themed performances in New York, for instance, "The Three Terrors Sing the Saddest Songs They Know for Valentine's Day."

Despite what he said about singing like an Ozu actor, "just delivering the lines," his voice is far from emotionless. Rather, he uses it in a peculiar way, singing with exactly the same degree and quality of emotion (depression) at all times, regardless of the musical or lyrical content. This style of singing is not unique to Merritt -- the great Scott Walker, for instance, sang in a classic crooner style, emoting fiercely, and with much vibrato, at all times, but with no reference to what was going on in the song (a number of the "American Idol" contestants are, I think, unwittingly following his example). However, Merritt uses it particularly effectively.

His production sound is unmistakable. He favors thin sounds -- ukuleles, plinky synthesizers, tinny, bassless drum machines -- and likes to layer them to form a dense wall of sound. Sometimes it's close to Phil Spector, sometimes it's more electro-pop, but it always has that unmistakable Stephin Merritt plink to it, even when the songs are played on acoustic instruments. The arrangements and production are often ingenious, but if there's a weak link to Merritt's music, this is it. After listening to too much Merritt, you'll find yourself longing for something, anything, with a good, heavy bass line. Put on some James Brown. You'll feel better.

Performance aside, Merritt is most revered, and rightly so, as a songwriter. It's difficult for me not to resort to a string of meaningless superlatives in describing his songs. Suffice it to say that they manage to be both clever and moving, both coherent and poetic. Each of his songs includes at least one turn of phrase so perfect, so jewel-like, it's as if Nabokov had overcome his dislike of music, and returned to write songs. His skill is such that he can turn outlandish ideas into successful songs: one of his best is "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," in which the French linguist and father of semiotics begins to deconstruct love, saying that we are unable to understand it, because "you can't use a bulldozer to study orchids." This angers the songwriter, who shoots and kills de Saussure to defend the honor of the Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Where most good songwriters try to avoid clichés, Merritt embraces them as an efficient way of communicating emotions that everyone understands. He mentioned "invitations to dance," a well-worn cliché in pop songwriting, and on this subject alone, he's written a handful of masterly songs, including "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old," which runs, in its entirety:

There'll be time enough for rocking when we're old
We will rock all day in rocking chairs of gold
But tonight I think I'd rather just go dancing
There'll be time enough for rocking when we're old, my love

There'll be time enough for talking in the nursing home
Darling time enough to write an epic poem
But tonight I think I'd rather just go dancing
There'll be time enough for talking in the home, my love

There'll be time enough for sleeping when we're dead
You will have a velvet pillow for your head
But tonight I think I'd rather just go dancing
There'll be time enough for sleeping when we're dead, my love

There'll be time enough for sex and drugs in heaven
Where our pheromones are turned up to eleven
But tonight I think I'd rather just go dancing
There'll be time enough for sex and drugs in heaven, my love

And time enough for rocking when we're old

So there you have, in a very simplified form, the complete Stephin Merritt package: depressing, deadpan vocal style, slick, plinky production, catchy, often upbeat melodies, and lyrics that combine pathos and melancholy with a laconic, biting wit. "Tragicomic" is a horrid word, but it describes Merritt's aesthetic perfectly.

When the reviews for "69 Love Songs" started to appear, Cole Porter's name was mentioned with astonishing frequency. Rolling Stone said Merritt was "the Cole Porter of his generation," Spin (in a 10 out of 10 review) said he was "the best lyricist since Cole Porter." Other publications made similar statements. It was meant to be a flattering comparison, of course. Highlighting Merritt's debonair wit and technical skill as a songwriter. Cole Porter is, as Merritt pointed out, shorthand for "good lyricist." And it helped that Porter, like Merritt, was gay. The problem is, Merritt isn't all that fond of Cole Porter. If you're determined to look in the Great American Songbook for Merritt's influences, he'd rather point you to Irving Berlin, whom Merritt is sufficiently fond of to have named his pet Chihuahua after, although he has called him an "artistic hack."

But comparisons to writers like Porter and Berlin, while capturing Merritt's extreme facility with clever and unusual rhymes, miss a lot of what his music is about. It's important to remember that he considers ABBA a truly great band, their songs the pinnacle of pop songwriting. What is for most of us either a guilty pleasure or a kitschy joke, Merritt seems to love without irony. And ABBA's peculiar combination of melodrama and emotional vacancy can often be heard in his own music.

There are three elements that contribute to the quality of emotional detachment in Merrit's music: his deadpan singing style, his almost constant reliance on humor, and his habit of appropriating genres in a semi-ironic fashion. Merritt was evasive about all three. When I asked him about his vocal style, he said, "I don't really like people whooping. I suppose if I could sing like Michael Jackson, maybe I would, but I can't. I don't want to make music that I can't sing along to, and I can't yelp and whoop, really. I'd be much too self-conscious." On humor: "Humor is a necessary aspect of rhyming. If you can't say anything that might be interpreted as silly, you can say very little in rhyme, which is why Bob Dylan and Cole Porter are full of silliness." And on genre: "It's important to have a lot of uninteresting elements just to go into the background, to foreground the interesting elements."

The only living songwriters I can think of who really compete with Merritt in terms of verbal facility and intricacy are rappers, so I was interested to know his thoughts on hip-hop. "In general, I liked the first two years of rap, and after that, it kind of got boring. The first Run DMC album, where the only sounds you hear are one primitive rhythm unit and one orchestra hit, I love the minimalism of that. I thought that was a great record. But once it wasn't simple anymore, I thought, Why aren't they singing yet? If they can't sing, what's the point? ... Who wants to hear pop without melody?"

After a short pause, in which he realizes what a ridiculous question he's just asked, he adds, "Only suburban teenage boys." Outkast? "I probably tapped my foot along the first hundred times I heard the goddamned thing. It's certainly no insult to Outkast to say that that's the most overplayed record since, well, since 'Into the Groove,' I think. I'm desperately sick of hearing it."

I tried playing Merritt a track by the Southern rapper Cee-lo, called "One for the Road," a dazzling display of verbal ingenuity and wit I thought he might enjoy. Before Cee-lo actually starts rapping, there's a short introduction, in which, sounding very Southern and very black, he says, "Yeah, mm-mm-mm, yeah that sho' feel good. Hello, I go by the name of simply Cee-lo Green, how d'ya do? Welcome. I thought I'd seize this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about myself, if you don't mind. This is my vision, ya know what I'm sayin'? Check me out now."

Unremarkable and tame, at least it seemed to me, but it was too much for Merritt, who stopped the song after a few seconds of this. "I think it's shocking that we're not allowed to play coon songs anymore, but people, both white and black, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It's grotesque. Presumably it's just a character, and that person doesn't actually talk that way, but that accent, that vocal presentation, would not have been out of place in the Christy Minstrels." Dramatic pause to prepare for the inevitable hyperbolic quip, "In fact, it would probably have been considered too tasteless for the Christy Minstrels."

Merritt does not keep careful track of what's happening in popular music these days, and seems entirely dismissive of most that he's heard. I asked him a few times if there were young and active artists out there whom he liked, and all I got was that Momus (mid-40s) is a "great lyricist," and that he likes the new High Llamas record. Since he stopped reviewing records, he doesn't get them sent to him for free in the mail anymore, so he says that "unless it's boring thumping disco music, I probably don't hear it, until my friends play it for me. Which they rarely do anymore, since I hate everything they play for me." Merritt hears so much "boring thumping disco music" because of his songwriting routine. "I sit around in cafes and bars and write. I prefer to have music playing when I write, it's sort of like having white noise. If I don't have music playing, my mind wanders. It helps for it to be music that I don't particularly like. If I like it, I'm listening to it, and that's distracting," he says. "The best is boring thumping disco, which is easy to find in gay bars."

Merritt feels there is nothing new or groundbreaking in popular music these days. "There needs to be a new technology," he said. "That's usually when that happens. Robotics would be great. If we could have an easily used robot guitar, for example, we could do lots of nifty things that have not been done. Computer-assisted songwriting would also be great." And, on queue: "For example, Björk could write a line and then be presented with something that rhymed with it. Great for people who don't speak English all that well." Satisfied smile.

He may have turned it into a joke, but I don't think Merritt was kidding when he said that computer-assisted songwriting would be great. He seems to have very little sympathy for the position that is so natural to most of us: that human care, creativity and, yes, frailty, are at the very core of what makes art moving. Talking about live performance, he said, "It's a pretty dull record that can be played live. Except maybe solo piano music. But even then, why not, using editing, get the perfect performance on the piano, that you'd never be able to replicate live? À la Glenn Gould." He said this as if it were an entirely obvious, universally accepted position. Which it is not. For every Glenn Gould and Emerson String Quartet, who edit takes together in the studio to achieve the "perfect" performance, there's a Rubinstein or a Schiff who would prefer to leave a few imperfections. I'm firmly on the Rubinstein side (although I'm entirely unsympathetic to the bogus arguments used to support it, most of them involving the dubious concept of "authenticity").

With my Luddite hackles raised by this and a few of Merritt's other comments (he's enthusiastic about the development of computerized singing), I wound up asking a genuinely ridiculous question: "Would you want a world in which everyone played perfectly metronomical drumbeats all the time?" Merritt paused to bask in the full absurdity of the question, and then, smiling, his voice more animated than at any other time during our conversations, answered, "Yes! Yes, I would!"

I think that Merritt's general preference for automation is related to something people hear in his music: the most frequent criticism of Merritt is that his music is cold. While I hear what they are talking about, that's not the way I experience the music. Stephin Merritt is a romantic who hides his romanticism, equally ineffectively, behind irony, wit, the synth-pop sheen of his productions, and his unfailingly jaded worldview.

But there are signs that Merritt may be shedding the disguise. "i" is a disappointing album, with a few great tracks and a lot of lackluster filler. But the album's final song, "It's Only Time," is my favorite he's ever written and, I was surprised and pleased to discover, his as well. And there's nothing conditional about it. It's an unabashedly romantic, heartbreakingly beautiful song. It's a declaration of eternal love, that begins "Why would I stop loving you/ One hundred years from now/ It's only time," and ends, "I'll walk your lands/ And swim your seas/ Marry me. And in your hands/ I will be free/ Marry me."

But even in discussing this song, Merritt remained cynical. I said that it seemed unusually optimistic for one of his songs. He replied "I see a lot of darkness in it. The declaration of love no matter what happens is, in the real world, a really bad idea. Marriage involves a sort of slavery. I don't think a good song can be a purely happy song. 'Zippedy-doo-da,' it's a great song, because no one in the world can hear it without irony. I wish I had written it."

By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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