The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt Redeems Soft Rock

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Stephin Merritt certainly doesn’t fit the singer/songwriter stereotype. Had he been born 50 years earlier, he’d have been locking elbows with George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael; 25 after that and he could have been a staff writer at Broadway’s Brill Building. When The New York Observer hailed him as “the greatest living American songwriter” after the release of 1999’s audacious 69 Love Songs—an unprecedented exercise in pop showmanship that attempted to reassess representations of love in the Western songwriting canon—they weren’t fitting him for Bob Dylan’s crown as much as they were dusting off Cole Porter’s. But even as critics have been quick to lay accolades at the feet of “Stephin Merritt, the artist,” they’ve been equally baffled by the enigmatic nature of “Stephin Merritt, the man.”

As the driving force behind no fewer than four sporadically recording bands, most notably the acclaimed Magnetic Fields, Merritt is conversant in nearly every recent popular music form. His songs carry the marks of a true craftsman: perfectly formed melodies, smartly conceived arrangements and lyrics both darkly probing and sardonic. And, more than any other songwriter of his generation, Merritt has been able to capture the human condition in various stages of undress, while rarely dipping into the stock metaphors and cheap laughs that plague similarly insightful scribes. In short, this is the work of someone who sees the world with an incisive eye, someone who catalogs the imperfections and moral frailties of human interaction. Accordingly, you might expect Merritt’s soul to emit wisdom and good vibes; however, he hasn’t always extended to others the grace their delicate humanity required.

In addition to his prodigious output, Merritt has left behind a long trail of frazzled interviewers and affronted former acquaintances who are convinced he loathes them. He can be a bit prickly at times, as likely to hang up the phone on you for a stupid question as he is to scold you for using “like” when you mean “as.” Reading past interviews yields a few themes for conducting a successful discussion with him: Don’t flatter him, don’t make small talk, and—most importantly—never interrupt him. But could a guy who combined goth rock and bubblegum music under the moniker The Gothic Archies be all that bad?

Entering a small Chelsea café on a Manhattan spring morning, Merritt hardly looks like the Napoleon he’s made out to be. Short and balding, carrying two cased instruments in one hand, he scans the room without expression until I flag him down. Forgetting myself, I try to exchange pleasantries, an attempt which is politely ignored. And while his demeanor isn’t particularly offensive, he seems far more comfortable quizzing me on the texture of my grapefruit juice and on how my tape recorder works than in making real conversation. What is it about him then that is so off-putting to so many? After a few minutes I begin to understand. Stephin Merritt is not like most people.

Most of us, inarticulate creatures that we are, speak with an undignified mix of partially cogitated statements, “ums” and “you knows.” Not Merritt—whose words, delivered in a rarely broken monotone, are measured as carefully as the verse in his songs. Long answers are anathema, like a chorus with one too many lines.

Having grown from the shy pop prodigy—who stood behind vocalists for whom he’d write his songs—into the in-demand auteur, scoring soundtracks and collaborating on Chinese operas, Merritt’s artistic range and breadth are nearly unparalleled in the pop idiom. His profile has risen considerably since the release of the three-hour 69 Love Songs, his widely acknowledged masterwork that sold more than 100,000 copies, an anomaly for an indie triple album. “Our parents were really impressed that we were playing at Lincoln Center, so that made it all worthwhile,” says Merritt, with only a trace of cynicism. So how does an artist follow that up?

“Oh yes, from the instant I thought of 69 Love Songs, I knew that, although it was the only record that I wanted to make, it was going to take me years to come up with the next record. And the new record sort of fell into my lap, more or less,” he says of i, his new 14-song set. This album also represents the first time Merritt has recorded without the use of electronically generated sounds. Where 69 Love Songs was notable for its glorious expanse, i is a far more unified effort; while the last Magnetic Fields album incorporated a variety of musical genres, this release focuses on only one: soft rock.

“I thought my next record would probably be disco or something. I like working in explicitly dead languages,” he says, taking particular pleasure in emphasizing that he’s chosen to explore a genre so despised. “By the next time that I make a Magnetic Fields record, hard rock should be such a term of abuse that I could put up with that. Obviously, I couldn’t perform it live,” continues Merritt. Part of the reason the more acoustic textures were incorporated was to allow the band to recast the new songs in a live setting.

“We have to play really quietly live because of my ear problems. So, if it gets much worse, our next album is going to be almost literally unplugged. The guitarist is begging to be allowed to play electric. Ha,” he says after an almost imperceptibly dry pause worthy of Niles Crane. “Next, he’ll want to bring a distortion box.”

It’s hard to argue with the results, as the 14 tracks both capture a similar sonic and conceptual depth while simultaneously condensing Merritt’s vision. “That was really all I expected, other than for me to be singing high. It was not my vocal range, obviously. I was surprised that I was able to sing high enough. And it didn’t sound as much like Roberta Flack as I expected it to.” And he’s right. If anything, it’s a more elaborate, layered album than 69 Love Songs, allowing Stephin Merritt, the arranger, to assume the center of the compositions.

“Once we signed a major-label record deal [with experimental art-music label Nonesuch], we decided we’d do it with actual production. It’s much less rough, much smoother, still not quite soft rock, though,” he says somewhat dejectedly. “In fact, I think only I know that it’s supposed to sound like soft rock. Well, I and the other band members … and the engineer. We should have used more electric piano …” Merritt trails off before turning around to shoot a scowl in the direction of the kitchen. “I want a croissant,” he growls. “I clearly admit that it doesn’t sound like it took three years to record, and it certainly shouldn’t have taken three years to record, but it did take three times as long as 69 Love Songs did. Of course, I wasn’t working on it 16 hours a day, every day, like I was with 69 Love Songs. But eight hours a day … half the time,” he says, his eyebrows rising as he does the math in his head. “Hmm. In terms of work hours, it still took longer than 69 Love Songs … damn thing,” Merritt finishes with mock disgust. “The songs, no. The recordings, yes. They’re well-mixed; the textures are pretty. More of the songs are full-band recordings. And the vocals are much better,” he continues, until the waiter interrupts him with his long-awaited order. “I’ll remember not to come here hungry again,” he says to no one in particular. “A 28-minute croissant …”

Hearing Merritt lay out his creative blueprint so blatantly is somewhat unsettling, as genre exercises are generally the last stop on the road to artistic bankruptcy. “All my records are genre exercises,” he retorts, looking away. “This is no more a genre exercise than anything else I do. Having grown up with this cosmopolitan life, I don’t have any roots to return to, so if I pick up an instrument I don’t automatically play one particular thing. I can hold a guitar without playing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ I can play the piano for hours without it ever occurring to me to play ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’… even if it is in C, my favorite key.”

Merritt’s directness is startling, and I’m rendered mute for a moment. When the silence grows too long even for him, he asks me, “Do you think soft rock still has a negative connotation to it?”

“Yes,” I say nervously, “Do you?”

“No. Other than for the whole class of people who don’t like anything that they’ve termed ‘soft rock,’” he replies, leaving me wondering if I’ve just been gently reprimanded. “The Velvet Underground spent quite a lot of time doing what we’d now describe as soft rock,” he continues, quickly running through their recordings for examples. “I think soft rock has expanded to include many things made by people who would have hated to be called soft rock. I’m sure ska people think they hate polka, but they don’t. They make polka. They just don’t know about it. And most composers don’t like to be told that what they’re making is easy listening, but it is. And if they don’t want [their music] to be easy listening, they should be a little threatening now and then,” he says, as if defending himself against a self-serious critic.

But I finally understand what Merritt’s getting at. Sure, he’s made a soft-rock record, but he’s doing so from the perspective of a pop auteur, someone who knows how to manipulate the essentials of the genre for maximum effectiveness. When Merritt makes a soft-rock record, it’s because he has nothing left to do. But does everyone get the complex references in his songs? Doesn’t his music ultimately work on a level far beyond the comprehension of the average Top 40 fan? “That’s also true of The Carpenters,” he counters. “I recently read the lyrics to Stevie Wonders’ Songs in the Key of Life, and I was shocked by how many references there were to the actual world that would have been so over most listeners’ heads. Like Crispus Attucks [the first African-American to die in the American Revolution]. How many people not in elementary school remember who Crispus Attucks was?” he says, thinking aloud. “Massive seller, though. Good record, too.”

Yawning, he informs me that he has to be at the radio studio in an hour, and he hasn’t yet decided what he is going to play, let alone rehearsed it. He grabs my bill and offers to pay it in the interest of not waiting on the peripatetic waiter to return. I offer him my last question. At this point, just what is success for Stephin Merritt?

For the first time in the conversation, Merritt’s eyes narrow and he smiles with a half-laugh, the thoughtlessly ostentatious nature of the question apparently too much for him to mask his antipathy. “I have no idea,” he answers, more as a question than a statement. “I don’t think about whether I’m a success or not. I’m too busy … and it doesn’t really matter whether I’m a success or not … or whether I think I am. I’ll let my mother think about whether I’m a success or not. It’s her problem.”

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