Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 30th, 2011

Learning from the masters: Stephin Merritt

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Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.

His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.

And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)

Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.

With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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I don’t think there are any clichés I try to avoid. As soon as I spot a cliché, I go for it. I feel like clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. They’re the tool on which you build all the rest of the song. Clichés that other people should try to avoid, I suppose, are rhyming “dance” with “romance,” or putting the word “love” at the end of a line and having to rhyme it. That’s about it. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague, otherwise you’re going to fall into trap after trap of trying to rhyme with somebody’s name. Keep it vague.

Stephin Merritt, to The AV Club

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 8:26 am

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