[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
BY JONATHAN VALANIA If there’s anything missing from Stephin Merritt’s encyclopedic oeuvre — a kitchen-sink catchall that includes everything from wry country twang and sincere synth pop to tortured torch songs and prancing show tunes — it’s Stephin Merritt. A remarkably dexterous stylistic quick-change artist — for my next trick, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll pull the Human League out of Cole Porter’s top hat — he’s a master illustrator of character sketches, meticulously cross-hatching two-minute melodramas out of the delicacies and detritus of 20th-century popular song.
But for all their rapier-like wit and chameleonic genre-hopping, Merritt’s songs — spread over releases by his various band guises, including the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies — always seemed to be delivered with a thespian’s flourish from a theatrical remove. As Jon Lovitz used to say with his index finger thrust skyward: That’s act-ing!
Back in 1998 he sat for a year in some Lower East Side gay dive where the jukebox was always raining men, armed with only a glass of brandy and a pack of American Spirits, his beloved Chihuahua Irving on his lap, feverishly scratching out the stylized Tin Pan drollery of 69 Love Songs. (Has the knife-in-the-heart of unrequited love ever been more cruelly twisted than with the line, “The night you can’t remember, the night I can’t forget”?) There was a song for everybody on that much-lauded opus — “genius,” declared The New York Times — everybody, it would seem, except for always-a-bridesmaid Stephin Merritt.
In the nine years that have passed since 69 Love Songs topped just about every critic’s best-of list and went on to move more units that the entire Magnetic Fields back catalog combined, Merritt has scored two operas (The Orphan of Zhao and Peach Blossom Fan, which opened last week in Los Angeles), released a Future Bible Heroes album, and created a song cycle based on the wildly popular Lemony Snicket children’s book series, and contributed entries to a new Oxford thesaurus.
In 2004, Merritt finally found time for himself — or more accurately, the first person — with i (deliberately titled in the diminutive e.e. cummings lowercase), which features 14 songs that all start with the ninth letter of the alphabet and end with a sideways glance in the mirror. Distortion, released earlier this year as the second part of a self-styled no-synth trilogy, finally resolves the ancient Zen koan: What is the sound of one Big Muff clapping? Answer: This album.
PHAWKER: You have famously said that ABBA is your favorite band, have you seen Mama Mia and if so, what is your verdict?
STEPHIN MERRITT: No, I have not seen it, specifically so I would NOT have to render a verdict.
PHAWKER: Smart boy. Your touchstone work remains 69 Love Songs. What would be the 70th love song?
STEPHIN MERRITT: I lost interest after 69.
PHAWKER: What does is it feel like to be ‘The Cole Porter of Your Generation’?
STEPHIN MERRITT: Cole Porter was rich, I am not.
PHAWKER: Where do you live these days?
STEPHIN MERRITT: I split my time between New York and Los Angeles.
PHAWKER: Sounds elitist.
STEPHIN MERRITT: It’s also Irving Berlin-esque and Gershwin-esque. All of the classic songwriters of the day split their time between Hollywood and Broadway.
PHAWKER: Have you ever shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?
STEPHIN MERRITT: No, but the last time I was in Columbus, Ohio, I was shot at. I was getting out of a car and walking into a bar when a bullet whizzed right past me and ricocheted off the parking lot.
PHAWKER: Speaking of which, have you ever voted for a Republican?
STEPHIN MERRITT: No, but I convinced my mom to vote Republican once. I convinced her to vote for William Weld, a moderate Republican, instead of John Silver, a Democrat that could be described as a fascist, for governor of Massachusetts.
PHAWKER: Do you recycle?
STEPHIN MERRITT: Yes, but I hold it in contempt, at least in New York City, where it seems to benefit organized crime and nobody else.
PHAWKER: Which is your favorite of the Ten Commandments to break?
STEPHIN MERRITT: I suppose the one about ‘have no God but me’ since I don’t believe. I was actually raised Tibetan Buddhist, but it never took. I have fewer beliefs than most people do, it seems.
PHAWKER: Safe to say you believe in science, though?
STEPHIN MERRITT: The scientific method will do until a better one comes along.
PHAWKER: Have you ever been arrested?
STEPHIN MERRITT: No, but I was almost arrested once in England. I was standing on the street and the cops walked up and grabbed the guy standing next to me and took him away.
PHAWKER: Babyface beats the rap! Have you ever knowingly killed someone?
STEPHIN MERRITT: Just the unborn.
PHAWKER: Provocative! Have you ever told a homeless person that you didn’t have any money when in fact you did?
STEPHIN MERRITT: I have this strange reflex that when people ask me for money I immediately say ‘Thank you.’
PHAWKER: Cruel but effective, I imagine. Answer me this: Is writing a song for Volvo selling out? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
STEPHIN MERRITT: I don’t care. I don’t think in those terms, and anybody that does think in those terms probably isn’t gonna ‘get’ the Magnetic Fields in the first place.
PHAWKER: The new Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, is sort of a homage to The Jesus And Mary Chain. What drew you to them back in the day?
STEPHIN MERRITT: They seemed like a final drop of Modernism eeked out of the sponge that most thought didn’t have any more juice left in it.
PHAWKER: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
STEPHIN MERRITT: How to play the harp. So, I have been taking lessons.
The Magnetic Fields play the Merriam Theater on Saturday October 25th.
MAGNETIC FIELDS: I Hate California Girls
Welcome to another edition of Phawker Music Television! This week we bring you this gloriously spiteful fuzz-pop confection from Magnetic Fields’ new barbwire-kissed Distortion — a great song in search of a video, if ever we heard one. And so we worked some of our Hollywood magic. Hat’s off to The Wook for the concept and execution, you can head over to Wookified to see the uncensored version. In closing, we would just like to say ’some gave their all’ and nobody knows that better than Paris Hilton, bless her little waxed-hairless Chihuahua heart.