Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The strange powers of Stephin Merritt

with 2 comments

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.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2012 at 10:33 am

2 Responses

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  1. I apologise for the length of this. But I can’t help myself. And since the interweb’s main purpose is as a repository of ill-informed opinion (your own blog excepted, of course — I even printed out your ten rules for writing the other day. I should manage to implement, oh, three of them, perhaps…), this should fit right in.

    The Lucksmiths were Australia’s great wordy-pop band (did I just invent a genre?..googles…maybe). I think these extracts — probably not their best, since I have not time to trawl through reams of lyrics — show how seriously they took their lyrics. The cleverness can result in a certain distance, and means your appreciation is often more intellectual than emotional, which of course limits their appeal. I mean, how many pop songs use ‘catercorner’? The great strength of those awful guitar bands that croak out banalities (I am thinking Nickelback or whatever they are called) is that they don’t sound intellectual and therefore in some way sound more genuine. It must be coming from the heart because clearly the brain was not involved. I would love a dollar for every song that rhymes you, do and blue. Like a lot of indy bands, the Luckys put out a lot of really good albums, but perhaps spread the great songs too thinly. The last example below not only has a great title, but I think mixes the cleverness with genuine feeling rather well. Perhaps more the masters of nearly-rhymes (up/pub), but still… Anyway. If you want to hear any of these, they are all (or perhaps mostly, since I have not actually looked) on that device for stealing half an hour out of your life, u-tube. But of course you have better things to do. As do I… now, where is that research grant application?

    Frisbee (Marty Donald)

    Are you sure you thought through the things we said that Thursday
    You were on and off my doorstep but you’re often on my mind
    And I’ve still got the alarm clock that you bought me for my birthday
    And I wake up at nine
    There’s no present like the time

    Stayaway Stars (Marty Donarld)

    Yeah, you’re upset
    So am I, so am I
    I sometimes forget just how seldom you cry
    And thus how much I hate it when you do

    Yeah, you’re a mess, more or less
    So am I
    I sometimes forget there are stars in the sky
    — So nonchalant, though thoroughly thought through

    Sunlight in a Jar (Tali White)

    We’ve never been much chop
    At all that sensual stuff
    One of us always seems to stop
    Before the other’s had enough
    Like a self-help manual that’s been written in Braille
    It seems the more that we touch
    The more we learn about our failings

    Midweek Midmorning (Donald)

    I was never one for getting up
    And catercorner from the pub
    I found it difficult deciding
    Between the indoors and the out-
    But overhead there’s not a cloud
    That couldn’t once have been skywriting

    The Year of Driving Langourously (Donald)

    It’s getting worse
    You’ve hardly said a word
    Since you set eyes on the horizon
    But I’ve seen the other side of that ocean there
    And it can’t compare to this
    So I’ll steal another kiss
    Before the sun goes down on this fibrotown
    And we give chase
    Like all those other days
    I suppose it’s no surprise
    We drive, time flies

    Darren Goossens

    March 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm

  2. Thanks for the tip—it sounds like something I would like! And I’ve always been interested in the contrast between rough, emotional rock lyrics and more cerebral pop music. A good topic for a blog post, perhaps…


    March 8, 2012 at 11:06 pm

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