We Should Be Whispering All the Time
A new album from the Magnetic Fields.
This past fall, NPR chose Stephin Merritt to inaugurate"Project Song," a radio series in which a musician is challenged to compose and record a new song in two days. They picked the right guy. Merritt, the singer-songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields and various spinoff bands, is a compulsive musical stuntman—the indie-pop David Blaine. He is apparently incapable of making a straightforward album; his discography is clogged with concept records, gimmicks, and other whimsical (and sometimes, gratuitous) displays of virtuosity and stamina. He recorded a collection of songs whose titles all begin with the letter I, sequenced in alphabetical order from "I Die" to "It's Only Time." Under the nom de guerre the 6ths, he released two "Stephin Merritt tribute albums," featuring a different lead vocalist on each track. In 2006, another of Merritt's moonlighting projects, the Gothic Archies, put out The Tragic Treasury, an anthology of "goth bubblegum"songs written by Merritt for the audiobook editions of Daniel Handler's best-selling children's stories A Series of Unfortunate Events. And, of course, there is Merritt's 1999 tour de force, 69 Love Songs, a sprawling three-CD set that he originally conceived for a "theatrical revue starring four drag queens."
Merritt is a devotee of the Great American Songbook—he named his Chihuahua Irving, after Berlin—and all his records are, in spirit, imaginary musicals. But Merritt's serial stunt artistry is mainly a matter of temperament. He writes brilliant, droll, depressive lyrics and sings in an affectless monotone—the voice of a man who has exceeded the recommended daily dose of NyQuil by a dozen teaspoons. He's a poet of ennui, and it seems that, in life as in art, he's bored by most things, including his own genius. The recording of a regular old CD may simply be too banal a prospect to stir Merritt from his spiritual sickbed.
The latest Magnetic Fields release is another stunt, with a twist. The album is called Distortion, and, with the exception of the drums, every instrument on the record—guitar, cello, accordion, piano—is swamped in feedback. Merritt being Merritt, the music carries a further layer of conceptual baggage. He has described Distortion as an homage to Scottish rockers Jesus and Mary Chain, whose 1985 debut Psychocandy broke new sonic ground, submerging girl-group pop melodies in roaring guitar noise. A straight pastiche would have been boring, but luckily the Magnetic Fields are incapable of replicating Psychocandy's squall. Even with the gain setting on their amplifiers maxed out, they are a poky little chamber-pop group—beneaththebillows of fuzz, you can hear Merritt and friends plinking along, as dainty as ever. It's a unique sound: the cutest darn metal machine music you've ever heard.
The closest the band comes to rock is the album's one-two opening punch: "Three-Way," a clattering surf-rock-style instrumental, and "California Girls," which, like half the songs on Distortion, is sung by longtime Merritt sidekick Sally Simms. Merritt has been spending more time in Los Angeles (where he owns a house), and "California Girls" is a black valentine to Tinseltown, a specialty of expatriate New York songwriters since Berlin and his Tin Pan Alley colleagues first washed up on the coast to compose for movie musicals in the 1930s. The song's satire of L.A. airheads is a bit broad by Merritt's standards, but the tune, hurtled forward by a thundercrack backbeat, has a grand Phil Spectorian swoop to it. And Merritt gets off some tightly rhymed jabs: "I have planned my grand attacks/ I will stand behind their backs/ With my brand new battleaxe. … They will hear me say, as the pavement whirls/ I hate California girls."
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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