Blank generation

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

By Douglas Wolk

published: August 20, 1998

"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.

"I can't say who it is, because otherwise I'd be promoting my own record with the names of people who never consented to it." Briton-turned-Parisian Nic "Momus," Currie--whose most recent disc, Ping Pong, is cheesy, sleazy, and brilliantly wack--it is noted, recently mentioned that he'd recorded a song for the project. "He may well have...most of the new songs the Magnetic Fields have been playing lately are from the new 6ths album. 'As You Turn to Go'--that's the one someone much like Momus may have sung." He pauses for a moment, looking quizzical. "It looked like Momus." Rumors also abound of Marc Almond look-alikes, Bob Mould impersonators..."My life is just riddled with these people," he deadpans.

Beyond the 6ths and the Magnetic Fields, Merritt has a few other bands to keep him busy. There are the aforementioned Future Bible Heroes, for which he's trying to finish up an EP before he leaves on tour. Then there are the Gothic Archies, a more than slightly ridiculous "goth-bubblegum" project that released an EP called The New Despair last year, all of whose jokes were based on exactly how nihilistic lyrics can possibly get; they will soon release a new single, "Satan, Your Way Is a Hard One." And then there's...this:

"I have a noise band. Well, it's not a band. It doesn't have any members. Including me. It's my broken reverb unit. It's called Stephin Merritt's Broken Reverb Unit. I've made about 20 minutes of recordings of that. Oddly, no one seems interested in releasing it. But I guess I'm asking the wrong people. I think it's beautiful."

As you might guess, Merritt has some idees fortes about what good songwriting consists of. (When he's not working on his musical projects, he writes sharp-witted music criticism for Time Out New York: His review of last year's Eric Matthews album ended, legendarily, "It eventually makes you want to throw the CD out the window, as I have just done.") As you might also guess, they are not easy to predict; he has, in the past, cited the "formal purity" of Abba, J.S. Bach, and Alvin Lucier as his primary paradigms. Apparently, he's lately thrown classic-rock radio into the mix.

"I really like the song by Journey, 'Don't Stop Believin','" he declares, picking at a scone. (He actually pronounces it, fastidiously, believing.) "'Don't Stop Believin'' has a wonderful chorus. It's the first chorus, it's the only chorus, and it fades out during the first chorus. So naturally, it has a fantastic verse, which is most of the song. The title is taken from the chorus, making sure you know that that's the chorus. Don't try this at home. That's a really hard way of writing a song, and I respect it a great deal. I don't think I respect any of the other songs I've heard by them. But I have allowed them to live because of this wonderful, spectacular feat."

"I'm trying to write a song called 'The Best of My Love' that's a combination of the Eagles song and that other '70s soul song. They have almost the same chorus, so I'm trying to split the difference. They both go, 'Whoa-whoa, you got the best of my love.' They didn't sue each other; they won't sue me. 'Whoa-whoa, you got the best of my love' seems to be public domain."

He also keeps tabs on what's on the radio, and he has a special fondness for big dumb novelty songs.

"I thought Aqua's 'Barbie Girl' was transcendent," he says. "The singer really inhabited the character of the 10-inch plastic doll. And her enthusiasm for becoming a character, which is what you have to do in a popular song in the first place, transcended her language barrier and...certain musical shortcomings. It was a great art-object, I think."

Bubblegum, art-objects...When he speaks, Merritt's ideas can come off as carefully considered alienation from pleasure (the way it's generally experienced), especially given his spectacularly dry delivery. This attitude becomes more interesting when he puts it into his own music, observing and re-creating fun from a distance, but as Merritt talks about popular songs, there's a grain of contempt in his tone, as well as a bit of envy; it takes some digging to get to the real affection for pop that lies beneath the archness.

"I don't know why Whitney Houston doesn't do one of my songs," he announces. "A lot of them are blank enough for her to play around with and have bland enough lyrics for the meaning to be in the singing rather than the lyrics, which is what she seems to demand from a song. I do that sort of thing pretty well, and I'm actually surprised that I haven't been taken up by that group of people. I like ripping the details out of popular songs and reducing them to just the skeleton, and seeing how much they still mean. And they still mean a great deal, I think." (Before forming his own new "band" Legendary Crystal Chandelier, former Funland frontman Peter Schmidt recorded a stripped-down version of Merritt's "All the Umbrellas in London" for KDGE-FM's "The Adventure Club.")

How, then, can these gutted creations have meaning?
"Pavlovian-conditioned response, I suppose, because the cliches of popular music are about what most people care about and like. If I write a song that goes, 'I love you, I'm sorry I hurt you, please stay,' there you go. It's a great, meaningful song. In fact, what a good title! It's got a little personality, and it's got that blankness that makes you wonder what it means...not so much irony, but the suggestion of irony."

Wait. What most people care about? There's a suggestion of brittle detachment there, an attitude toward cliche that's half desire to embrace it, half desire to disembowel it--a perfect way, it turns out, to summarize the way Merritt treats cliches in his own songs. It's that balance that ultimately distinguishes his songs the most, so the real question becomes whether he believes that his own personal concerns, and the concerns he expresses in his songs, are the same as the concerns "most people" have. There is a very long pause, as Merritt, who speaks almost exclusively in complete sentences, sips his tea and chooses his words.

"They do a lot less kissing in Asia..." Another pause. "I'm probably more interested in difficult loves because I'm gay, and I'm probably more interested for the same reason in operatic plots. I'm not an energetic dancer, so I don't write a lot of songs about how we ought to move our feet around. I don't tend to write songs of short-term social-political relevance...I have a lot of songs about other songs, basically. [Village Voice critic] Robert Christgau dismissed Holiday with what I thought was a perfectly fair review: 'More songs about songs and songs.' That's the most concise and true review that I think I've ever gotten. I don't see it as a dismissal. What I care about most in the world is popular music, actually. More than love, I think I care about popular music. I would rather be disfigured than go deaf."

When the interview is over, we are alone in the back garden of the pub in Manhattan's East Village where Merritt goes every afternoon, as a routine that orders his life, to drink his tea. Inside, somebody's playing a CD on the stereo system. There's still a lavish spread in front of us: scones and a salad, jars of marmalade and jam. It's a pity that we are no longer hungry.