Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Magnetic Fields

American Stories #9: 808s & Heartbreak

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

If there’s a common thread that connects many of the works of art that I’ve been discussing here, it’s the way in which our private selves can be invaded by our lives as members of a larger nation, until the two become neurotically fused into one. This is probably true of all countries, but its deeper connection with the notion of personal reinvention feels especially American, and no celebrity embodies it as much as Kanye West. It might seem impossible to make sense of the political evolution of a man who once told us that President Bush didn’t care about black people and then ended up—despite the efforts of a concerned time traveler—taking a very public meeting with Donald Trump. Yet if one of our most ambitious, talented, and inventive artists can be frequently dismissed by critics as “oblivious,” it may only be because he’s living two years ahead of the rest of us, and he’s unusually committed to working out his confusions in public. We should all feel bewildered these days, and West doesn’t have the luxury of keeping it to himself. It might seem strange to single out 808s & Heartbreak, which looks at first glance like his least political work, but if this is the most important album of the last ten years, and it is, it’s largely because it reminded us of how unbearable emotion can be expressed through what might seem to casual listeners like cold detachment. It’s an insight that has crucial implications for those of us who just want to get through the next few years, and while West wasn’t the first to make it, he was remarkably candid about acknowledging his sources to the New York Times:

I think the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special…808s was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.

This is exactly right, and it gets at why this album, which once came off as a perverse dead end, feels so much now like the only way forward. When I think of its precursors, my mind naturally turns to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly on Actually, which was first released in 1987. A song like “Shopping” anticipates 808s in its vocal processing, its dry drum machine, its icy synthesizers, and above all in how it was widely misconstrued as a reflection of the Thatcherite consumerism that it was criticizing. That’s the risk that you run as an ironist, and West has been punished for it more often than anybody else. And while these two worlds could hardly seem further apart, the underlying impulses are weirdly similar. New wave is notoriously hard to define, but I like to think of it as a movement occupied by those who aren’t comfortable in rock or punk. Maybe you’re just a huge nerd, or painfully shy, or not straight or white, or part of a group that has traditionally been penalized for expressing vulnerability or dissent. One solution is to remove as much of yourself from the work as possible, falling back on irony, parody, or Auto-Tune. You make a virtue of reticence and understatement, trusting that your intentions will be understood by those who feel the same way. This underlies the obsessive pastiches of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, whose 69 Love Songs is the other great album of my adult life, as well as West’s transformation of himself into a robot programmed to feel pain, like an extended version of the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. West has taken it further in the years since—“Blood on the Leaves” may be his most scandalous mingling of the political and the personal—but it was 808s that introduced it to his successors, for whom it serves both as a formula for making hits and as an essential means of survival. Sometimes the only way to make it through the coldest winter is to turn it into the coldest story ever told.

All his little words

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Stephin Merritt

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.

69 Love Songs

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.”

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2017 at 9:29 am

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

The way of the gun

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David Carr

Like many readers, I first encountered David Carr through his longtime work as The Carpetbagger, in which he brilliantly covered the annual insanity of the movie awards season for the New York Times. Show business reportage, like media journalism in general, is a funny thing: by definition, all reporters are members of the media, and there’s a tendency among writers, myself included, to think we can write in an informed way about the entertainment industry just because we happen to have a blog. As a result, there’s an endless supply of this sort of coverage, especially around Oscar time, and most of it is pretty superficial. Yet it’s all still oddly readable: I’m more likely to scroll through a shoddily written piece on Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne’s prospects for Best Actor than, say, an article on tort reform, just because the subject matter lends itself to painless, disposable consumption. What made Carr so extraordinary is that he took a beat that was inherently forgiving, at least when it came to momentarily sustaining a reader’s attention, and made it so smart and memorable that you had to take notice. His name quickly became one of five or so bylines in the Times that I was happy to see whenever it appeared, and I was sorry when he stepped back from awards coverage a few years ago to focus on other subjects.

Yet he never went away, and it was only after his sudden death yesterday that I and so many others realized how subtly he had become a part of our lives. The day he died, I’d read no fewer than two of his pieces—one on Brian Williams, the other contrasting the unexpected departures of Williams and Jon Stewart—and there’s no question that I clicked on them mostly because of his name. Just the day before, I was scrolling through some notes I’d made on his excellent memoir The Night of the Gun, which I’d read while doing research on addiction for an ongoing writing project, and only last week, my wife and I were laughing over an anecdote about Bob Odenkirk’s recent visit to Chicago:

“Do you have The Night of the Gun by David Carr in paperback?” Odenkirk asks the woman behind the counter at Powell’s Books on South Halsted Street…Nope, just hardcover, says the smiling employee, who may or may not recognize him. “Nah, forget it,” says Odenkirk, who’s considering adapting Carr’s addiction memoir as a screenplay. “I don’t wanna lug that thing around.”

“And so the movie was never made,” I joked. But I hope it will be. I’ve read a lot of books on addiction, but Carr’s is by far the best, and its emphasis on the verification of even his most personal memories makes it a model not just for similar accounts, but for autographical writing of any kind.

The Night of the Gun by David Carr

The Night of the Gun makes most other addiction memoirs seem lazy, just as Carr’s writing on the media made you realize how forgettable much of this kind of work could be, but that’s what he did for a living. Any consideration of his legacy has to begin with the apparent contradiction between his life story, which his book relates in grueling detail, and his beat, which saw him cranking out a few hundred words at a time on gossip from the red carpet or selfie sticks. Yet both were a matter of talent elevating the material when lesser writers would be content to coast. Addiction memoirs are like media coverage in at least one way: there’s an element of voyeurism to both that make the result more interesting than might have been honestly earned. Carr wasn’t the type to settle for that, and you couldn’t read his articles without reflecting that maybe, just maybe, the media deserved to be written about by someone who had seen and experienced more than what he’d seen in movies and on television. He kept the two sides of his writing life separate, but both emerged from the same restless curiosity, and we all felt it. Carr was never exactly a celebrity journalist, but his name was a sign of quality that most of the more famous players he covered would have had reason to envy.

And what really set him apart was the fact that he never regarded substance abuse as a form of life experience or legitimacy, as so many other authors of addiction memoirs—especially those of a younger generation—implicitly do. Addiction didn’t make him a good journalist; if anything, being a good journalist was what allowed him to describe his own addiction so honestly, and to lay out its logic in ways that I’ll never forget. (He’s particularly good in describing how drugs offer a form of structure to those who crave it, leading to a life that is remarkably organized, or in contrasting the “pickling effect” of heroin, which renders its users passive and harmless, to the “ripping and running” of cocaine, which tends to leave scars. It’s also a very funny book: by his own account, Carr wrote a lot of it while listening to The Magnetic Fields, and he and Stephin Merritt share a gift for the ironic understatement of tragedy.) Carr collapsed suddenly at the office last night, and while it’s tempting to romanticize this a little, as if all working journalists secretly wish to die in harness, I have no doubt that he would have said that he’d prefer to be with his family. He leaves behind one excellent book, a body of great work written on deadline, and a sense that there was a lot left that he had to say. And I’ll miss him.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2015 at 10:02 am

Reflektions on a life in art

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Reflektor by Arcade Fire

Earlier this week, like just about everyone else I know, I picked up a copy of Reflektor, the fourth album by Arcade Fire. This isn’t a review, necessarily: I’ve listened to the album in bits and pieces, but I’ve only had the chance to play it straight through once, for some of the same reasons that have made it hard for me to watch an entire movie at home. And this is a band that has taught me to question my initial impressions. When The Suburbs was first released, it struck me as weaker than their previous two albums; now, it feels like their strongest work, and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is my favorite song of the decade. Reflektor certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy evaluation: it’s a double album, with the majority of its tracks pushing the six-minute mark, and the early reviews have resorted to all the usual adjectives—it’s sprawling, messy, flawed, indulgent, as if that weren’t true of all albums this length. Some are already calling it Arcade Fire’s Kid A, but its real counterpart, if you want to stick to Radiohead, is Hail to the Thief: it isn’t trying to reinvent pop music as we know it, but with its big, ragged tracks organized around the seed crystal of a memorable hook, it’s systematically pushing the boundaries of what we recognize as familiar.

In short, I like it a lot, and it confirms Arcade Fire as one of the two contemporary bands whose work I’ll always rush out to buy on the first day. The other is The Magnetic Fields, or, more precisely, the music from the mind of Stephin Merritt, whose Future Bible Heroes side project released a wonderful album earlier this year. At first glance, Merritt and Arcade Fire don’t have much in common, but to my ears, they’ve come to define two extremes of the kind of music I—and a lot of other listeners—care about so deeply. Merritt writes tight, spare novelty songs, the best of which often sound as if they were composed and recorded on a Casio keyboard; Arcade Fire throws everything into the mix, with lush, passionate orchestrations designed, at least in the early days, to have an entire auditorium singing along at the top of its lungs. (One of my favorite concert memories is seeing them play here in Chicago, with the crowd repeatedly trying and failing to join in at the right moment for the initial “Hey!” in “No Cars Go.”) Merritt is primarily a brilliant lyricist who writes catchy tunes as a sort of metacommentary on how cheap a resource a melody can be; Arcade Fire’s lyrics, while heartfelt, are usually the weakest link in their songs, which exist mainly to generate overpowering sonic emotions. And so on.

Stephin Merritt

But I wouldn’t want to give either of them up. It’s fascinating to think of how they might approach similar material: Reflektor draws heavily on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a nod to Marcel Camus’s movie Black Orpheus, and while I can easily imagine Merritt writing a song on the subject, it would probably end up being a rhyming dictionary exercise on the word “Eurydice.” (“Idiosyncrasy,” “conspiracy,” “bureaucracy”—it practically writes itself.) If you like, you could even see them as dueling expressions of the existential and ironic philosophies of life. To Arcade Fire, the moral choices each one of us makes are crucially important, and we need to behave as if we were setting an example for the entire world. Win Butler, their lead singer and lyricist, is intensely concerned with the inner lives of children, with nature, with all we destroy in the name of progress. Nothing could be further from Merritt. When his songs aren’t talking about other songs, they’re focused on the sly dissection of a moment, on how our deepest feelings are shaped by the formulas we’ve heard on the radio, and, with rare exceptions, even his most emotional tracks are delivered with a wink: we’re constantly asked to consider how he does what he’s doing. It’s pop music written for other writers, which isn’t to say it can’t be moving. When Merritt allows real feeling to slip through, it means a great deal, and the result cuts even deeper than an Arcade Fire song that urges us with all its heart to feel the plight of the powerless.

Yet in their very different ways, the Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire are linked by a sense of the overwhelming importance of music to how we think about ourselves. For Arcade Fire, this drama is played out within the context of individual songs, each one of which insists it could change your life; for Merritt, it’s a lifetime’s work, with every two-minute throwaway serving as another brick in an edifice that the artist is patiently building. Merritt never tries to pack everything he knows into one track: instead, he stands back and invites us to consider what it really means to devote one’s life to something as absurd as pop music. Of the two, I suspect that his work might end up being the most lasting, at least for me, if only because I relate more to his vision of an artist who is one step away from being an ingenious hack. It’s a recipe for a life in art, or for keeping one’s sanity in the face of the hollowness of the entire artistic enterprise, while Arcade Fire is a dream of how urgency, passion, and technical virtuosity can transform us into something more, if only for the space of a song. Both attitudes are necessary, and the ideal would be a band or artist who embodies both ends of the spectrum, alternatively or all at once—arch detachment balanced by passionate emotion, distance tempered by vulnerability, irony framed by compassion. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can even dance to it. And I have a feeling it would look a lot like the Pet Shop Boys.

The strange powers of Stephin Merritt

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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

Yes, that’s really me

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Two weeks ago, in what felt like an important milestone, I finally had an author photograph taken for The Icon Thief. The photographer, Brian Kinyon, is a very smart and talented guy from Oak Park who took the pictures for my own wedding, and whom I knew could be counted upon to make me look fairly presentable. Before the photo shoot, I half-seriously sent him a link to the website of Marion Ettlinger, generally considered to be the Rembrandt of author headshots. Brian said that he loved Ettinger, but cautioned me that I shouldn’t expect to look quite like her picture of Truman Capote. I agreed. After all, that’s a face you need to earn.

We began with some informal shots around the house, which my wife insisted we get. In my favorite photo, I’m holding my Pantone mug, which I bought at the Art Institute here in Chicago. (The color of the mug is Columbia blue, or Pantone 292, which should ring a bell to fans of the Magnetic Fields.) This mug, which has contained something like two thousand cups of green tea over the past couple of years, has been my constant companion, and I’m glad it’s in this shot. And among the books visible on the shelf behind me is Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, to which I owe a great deal. The Phantom Tollbooth is also there. So while I don’t think this picture is going to be my official photo, I’m glad to have it.

With that, I changed into my official suspense novelist’s uniform, mandated by law, which consists of a blazer, dress shirt, and dark jeans. (A turtleneck, I’m relieved to say, is optional. But have you ever seen a thriller writer wear anything else?) It was a nice day, so Brian and I went out to explore my beautiful neighborhood of North Center, heading up toward Lincoln Square. We took shots at the Sulzer Regional public library, at Cafeneo coffee shop, where Brian used to hang out when he lived in this area, and under the El tracks, which is the picture I’ve ultimately chosen. (“The steel girders make you look like a tough thriller writer!” my wife said.)

All in all, we took more than nine hundred shots, of which Brian ultimately sent me close to two hundred. And although I reserve the right to change my mind, I’m pleased by the one I’ve chosen. This is pretty much how I look, at least on a good day, and I’m grateful to Brian for doing such an inspired and professional job. The result, greatly reduced, will probably end up on the inside back cover of my novel, my publisher’s website, and various other places. And hopefully I’ll still look more or less the same when the novel comes out in April 2012, recently pushed back two months from its original date of February. (But that’s a story for another day.)

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

For the novelist who has everything

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Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)

1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)

2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.

3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)

4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)

5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).

Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.

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