All his little words
Yesterday, I listened to most of the album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, which I hadn’t played in its entirety in a couple of years. I happened to think of it because it struck me that Stephen Merritt is exactly the kind of voice we all need to hear right now: wry, ironic, detached, and endlessly capable. His career has been defined by its productivity and by an inhuman degree of versatility, as if Merritt were determined to prove in practice what he once stated in “The Formulist Manifesto,” which is that all pop music, even the kind that affects us the most profoundly, can be reduced to a handful of technical tricks. He’s probably right. Yet as I took in the album again, I was hit by the realization, which I seem fated to periodically rediscover forever, that this is the most moving music that anybody has made in my lifetime. And its power is inseparable from how mechanical it all seems. In an awestruck review, the critic Robert Christgau marveled at how its three discs—“one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical”—had upended all his preconceptions about how art was supposed to sound. What it really suggests, at least to me, is that our most deeply held feelings are artificial, too, or at least shaped to a frightening extent by pop music’s gorgeous lies. Which doesn’t make them any less meaningful. And it’s why I’m more excited about the upcoming album 50 Song Memoir, in which Merritt devotes one autobiographical track to every year of his life, than any new release in a long time.
What’s most notable about it, of course, is that it’s a musical memoir from an artist who, until now, has been steadfast in his refusal to reveal himself. For its first two albums, The Magnetic Fields hid behind the shiny, slightly opaque—but often heartbreakingly beautiful—voice of Susan Anway, and it wasn’t until she left that Merritt began to sing. (In retrospect, the abrupt transition from Anway to Merritt feels like a great gag in itself, like going from the angel at the top of the Christmas tree to a toy robot whose batteries were slowly running down. Unlike Bon Iver, Merritt didn’t need to process his voice to make it sound like a found object.) Later, he would often outsource the vocals to the likes of L.D. Beghtol, Shirley Simms, and, above all, his agent Claudia Gonson, who might have the loveliest voice of its kind since Neil Tennant. He also refused to be pinned down to any one sound, although the fact that his personality shines through every track, regardless of style, is as compelling an argument as I can imagine for the existence of artistic sensibilities that transcend genre. The very good documentary on his career, Strange Powers, reveals as little about its subject’s personal life as possible. His most emotional songs carry the implication that he might be pulling our legs, while his parodies and throwaways are where I suspect he might be the most heartfelt. And all of his albums, with one major exception, are a little “disappointing,” in the sense that any given day of one’s life is slightly disappointing. Whatever sense I have of Merritt comes less from any individual song than from all of them remembered simultaneously, like the character in Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a vinyl record on his wall so that he can gaze at it and enjoy the music all at once.
Yet it’s typical of Merritt’s slipperiness and infuriating cleverness that he transforms the whole notion of an autographical album into a stunt in itself. Judging from the five tracks that have already been released, this is a memoir written with the help of a rhyming dictionary, which might well be the only kind worth hearing. Merritt’s one real weakness as a songwriter—and I have to think hard to come up with one—is that the joke is often all there is: once you’ve heard the title of “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” or “My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre,” you basically know what the song is about, since Merritt can always be trusted to execute a precious conceit to perfection. But that’s how life is, too. When you stand back far enough, most lives are similar enough that at any given moment, when you describe the setup, any objective observer should be able to come up with the punchline. The only person who can’t see the humor is the one whose life is under consideration. In his review of one of the first albums by The Magnetic Fields, Christgau says of Susan Anway: “She’s proud to play the puppet.” But we’re all puppets of pop music. There are enormous swaths of experience that Merritt politely declines to cover, but for much of our lives, we talk to one another in song lyrics, our souls given temporary animation by the passage of a radio single from somewhere out in the ether. In practice, it usually has less in common with, say, “Layla” than with a plinky novelty track picked out on the ukulele. Merritt recognizes this and, in his odd way, honors it. And it does more to give dignity to human existence than the stark sincerity of a band like Arcade Fire, which I also love.
Which is just to say that Merritt’s memoir is also my own. I first discovered 69 Love Songs in my twenties, and it felt like I was among the last in my circle of friends to hear it, although it had only been out for two or three years. (So much time has passed that it feels now like I was listening to it almost from the beginning, which is scary in itself.) At the time, Merritt was about as old as I am today, and the album feels like a soundtrack to that chapter of my life, filtered through a weary wisdom that was telling me truths that I wasn’t ready to hear yet. Listening to it, I’m reminded of the poem by A.E. Housman—the poet and classical scholar who was once described by a colleague as “descended from a long line of maiden aunts,” and who feels weirdly like one of Merritt’s spiritual precursors—that begins:
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…”
“No use to talk to me,” Housman says, and he was right. Poetry, like pop music or philosophy, is full of the sort of information that can’t be taught to us, but only recognized after we’ve learned it firsthand, and it can take a lifetime to tell the difference between its pretty fables and its most agonizing truths. Merritt’s music feels like two hundred ways of saying what Housman expresses in sixteen lines, and now that I’ve made it to the other side, I can only murmur: “And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.”