Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Learning from the masters: Stephin Merritt

with 5 comments

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

5 Responses

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  1. Although in many ways he is demographically my arch-nemesis, I can’t help but admire the *craft*, and the collaboration, which is of course not just the core four but all sorts of folks.

    The only shame is the movie, which was pretty awful. Basically a really badly edited fag hag love-poem, although the dog was cute. What was fascinating, however, was to look at the ways in which he *inhabits* his habitus–the apartment that was a studio, museum, and spatialized memory.

    And of the course the lyrics. “Camus” rhymes with “blue”, obvious, yes, but worth the smile every time. But what could possibly rhyme with “Sausurre?”


    March 30, 2011 at 9:32 am

  2. Funny you should mention it, because I was just telling Wailin how Merritt’s voice in certain interviews reminds me of you. (I think it’s something in the way he says “Hmmm…yes.”)

    Haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ll probably check it out anyway, if only because I love Claudia Gonson.


    March 30, 2011 at 5:57 pm

  3. “Busby Berkeley Dreams” I remember is one of the few reasons I ever logged onto Wikipedia to edit the article for the Magnetic Fields and Shade the Changing Man references…


    March 31, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  4. I haven’t edited Wikipedia since adding an “Allusions to the original stories” section to the article on Sherlock Holmes. It’s some of my best work.


    March 31, 2011 at 11:03 pm

  5. i love it, its’ fantastic !!!


    August 17, 2012 at 8:40 am

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