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Hooks, cliches, and highbrow wit: How Stephin Merritt has become a pop songwriter without peer

"The name of the record is 69 Love Songs," Stephin Merritt drawls, pouring himself the day's first cup of tea, from his first of two pots. "I've got 53 so far. Only 16 more to go."

This is his plan for the sixth album by the band for which he's best known, the Magnetic Fields. The New York-based Merritt is an old-fashioned eccentric in a world with very little room for them; he's perfectly aware of his position in life as Odd Little Man, and his work is full of purposeful idiosyncrasy and perversity. He's an unabashed highbrow (the Magnetic Fields are named after a Surrealist novel by Andre Breton) who's also fascinated by the idea of normalcy, blandness, and simplicity--though from an outsider's perspective. And he's a brilliant songwriter: a master of sugary pop tunes and a lyricist who balances heart-on-sleeve emotion and barbed, audacious, hyperarticulate wit like nobody else. Hence the conceit of his new album.

"The original idea was 100 love songs," Merritt continues, "which is even better at expressing assembly-line mentality. I like the idea of love songs in bulk--I like it for its Warholian repetition, and for the gall it clearly displays that is part of my personality. It's a stunt--it's Evel Knievel jumping over 69 cars."

It will most likely end up fitting on a double CD. "My songs are getting shorter and shorter," he explains, "and I see no reason to check that trend for an album of 69 songs. The number of songs over five minutes long that I think don't desperately need to be edited I can count on one hand. The number of songs I consider too short, I think, is zero. This is in the history of Western civilization."

The just-completed love song number 53, in fact, is a haiku, which he croons: "What a moon! / Poets all over the world must be / Writing songs of love." That's an extreme case, though. The new Magnetic Fields single "I Don't Believe You" is a lot more representative of the state of this band: three ridiculously catchy minutes that begin "So you quote love unquote me / Well, stranger things have come to be / But let's agree to disagree / 'Cause I don't believe you." Like most of the Fields' records, it could pass for early-'80s electro-pop, except for the Bizarro synth tones and production tricks that Merritt favors.

The single has been released to coincide with the band's first-ever extended tour, a circuit of the U.S. on which they'll be displaying a new live configuration: Merritt has removed the drums and electric guitar and "instituted the regime of the banjo and piano." (Long-standing cellist Sam Davol got to keep his instrument.) At a recent show that previewed the new arrangements, Merritt seemed cheerful--animated, even--and since the quality of Magnetic Fields performances varies in direct proportion to his mood, that's good news. (Though not for metroplex audiences: The Magnetic Fields were scheduled to perform two weeks ago at the Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton, but Merritt canceled because the small club couldn't afford the guarantee.)

"I actually think I would go see us now, and I would go see us twice," Merritt says. "We're no longer this curiosity, the last indie-rock band. Claudia didn't want to play piano, and John [Woo] didn't want to play the banjo, and everybody except me thought it was a really stupid idea." He takes another drag on his cigarette. "Ha ha."

"Claudia" is Claudia Gonson, Merritt's manager, handler, best friend, and bandmate since the two Bostonians met in high school. They played together in a few barely recorded groups (the Zinnias, Buffalo Rome) until everything clicked in the early '90s with the Magnetic Fields, an ensemble in which Merritt programmed the synthesizers, Susan Anway sang, and Gonson played a stripped-down kit of "cocktail drums." Their first American single, "100,000 Fireflies," became something of an indie-pop standard, with Merritt's keyboards chiming and glittering behind Anway, who sang lyrics that vacillated between wistfulness and loathing: "You won't be happy with me / But give me one more chance / You won't be happy anyway."

Anway left after two albums, Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus (now available on a single CD), and Merritt's subdued baritone took over for the next few albums: The Charm of the Highway Strip (a concept album about the open road, which he recorded virtually solo as a demo for Capitol Records) and Holiday. Through the early '90s, the Magnetic Fields became increasingly viable as a live band, with a lineup of Merritt, Gonson, Davol, and a succession of guitarists--the "succession" part due to the fact that most guitarists, as Merritt notes with a shudder, tend to want to express themselves. By 1995's Get Lost, John Woo--suitably inexpressive, presumably--had settled into the guitar position, and Gonson's clear, pretty backup vocals became much more prominent; on last year's even-more-new-wave-than-usual Memories Of Love, an album by the Future Bible Heroes (a songwriting collaboration between Merritt and Chris Ewen of '80s synth-pop band Figures on a Beach), Gonson sang lead half the time.

Today, Merritt's preparing to call her about a recording session, whose location she knows and he doesn't, happening later in the afternoon. They'll be recording a vocalist for the forthcoming record by his other major band, the 6ths--a project in which he writes and arranges songs for other people to sing. On the first 6ths album, Wasps' Nests (named after the other two hardest-to-pronounce one-syllable English words), Merritt notoriously instructed his singers--a lineup of indie-rock all-stars, including Barbara Manning, Chris Knox, and Superchunk's Mac McCaughan--to sing everything exactly as written, and as though they were bored. (Some of the songs were perfect matches for their singers; some were perfect mismatches. Amelia Fletcher of Heavenly got to deliver "Looking For Love (In The Hall Of Mirrors)," possibly the best song ever written about gay male cruising, in her breathiest, girliest tone.) This time, it'll be a bit different; he claims that, against his instincts, he hasn't given any instructions on the new record. Though he declines to say exactly whom he'll be not instructing today.

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