If there’s a single image that lingers in my mind from the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, it’s the shot, from the very beginning of the movie, of a stack of rhyming dictionaries. It’s hard to imagine seeing a similar sight in the apartment of a self-consciously solemn lyricist like, say, Win Butler of the Arcade Fire, but Stephin Merritt, who may be our greatest living non-hip-hop rhymer, has never been afraid to acknowledge his sources. (Sometimes he even cites them directly in the lyrics, as in “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits,” in which the sudden appearance of “Abbots, Babbitts, and Cabots” appears to be a direct reference to Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary.) Every fan has his or her own favorite Merritt rhymes, of course: I’ve always liked “So you’re brilliant, gorgeous and / Ampersand after ampersand,” but another contender, from the new album Love at the Bottom of the Sea, is “Let Laramie take care of me until they bury me.”
I’ve written before about the curious hold that Merritt has over my imagination, not simply as one of the best songwriters of his generation, but also as one of the most productive. Merritt has spoken candidly about his love of cranking things out, as well as his desire to write a dozen Hollywood musicals, and he’s undoubtedly capable of it—it’s the rest of the world that needs to keep up. His most famous work, 69 Love Songs, is basically a concept album about productivity, in which it’s impossible to separate the album itself from the story of its composition. Yet Merritt wouldn’t occupy his current cultural position—which, while far off the mainstream, seems assured of its permanence—if he hadn’t written some of the most moving love songs of the past two decades. He’s a model of how professionalism and reticence can be a cover for blinding emotion, and even if the process behind his songs can seem artificial, the life they strike up in the mind of the listener is very real.
That’s why it’s often dangerous to judge a new Magnetic Fields album too hastily. Merritt’s latest release has already garnered some rather disappointed reactions from those who were expecting a return to form after the studied acoustic sounds of his last three albums, which were often wonderful, but uneven. Love at the Bottom of the Sea—the title of which seems to hark back to Merritt’s earliest songs, which sounded as if they were recorded on the lowest deck of the Titanic—has the feel of classic Magnetic Fields, but it’s also detached and pointedly impersonal, at least at first listen: its fifteen tracks, none much longer than two minutes, are icy, flawless novelty songs, with each working out the one joke in its title (“I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh,” “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre”) with a thoroughness that seems both methodical and effortless. Merritt’s technical skills have never been higher—he’s the ultimate song-generating machine—but it’s easy to wish that he’d given us another song like “It’s Only Time.”
Yet this almost misses the point. All of Merritt’s albums are minor by design, except 69 Love Songs, which proves that three minor records can add up to one major one. His songs are designed to be throwaways, except when one of them sticks. The sheer volume of his output guarantees that he’ll be responsible for several dozen songs that I’ll enjoy forever—he’s a living exemplar of Dean Simonton’s rule that quality is a probabilistic function of quantity—but it also means that he’ll have twice as many disposable tracks. (This is why seeing the Magnetic Fields in concert, with a set list apparently drawn by random from Merritt’s entire catalog, can be such a frustrating, though weirdly charming, experience.) And I don’t think he’d have it any other way. One rhyme after another, Merritt is building one of the most durable legacies in pop music, with each album an installment in the ongoing project of 195 Love Songs, and counting. And fortunately for us, we can slice them up any way we like.