The ‘I’ of the Beholder

The ‘I’ of the Beholder

About fifteen years ago, looking for something to play on my college radio station, I cued up a reel-to-reel tape I’d found in a pile by the wall–and fell in love.


About fifteen years ago, looking for something to play on my college radio station, I cued up a reel-to-reel tape I’d found in a pile by the wall–and fell in love. The tape was by a local Boston band, Buffalo Rome, and the song was called “You Love to Fail.” “Maybe tomorrow I’ll see love in your eyes; then mine will die,” sang a woman with a voice like distilled water, almost without inflection. “You love to fail. That’s all you love.” The instrumentation was shimmering, curiously static electronics; the melody was as heartbreaking as the words. I wondered if I’d ever again hear anything like it.

A year or so later, I discovered that Buffalo Rome wasn’t just an anonymous one-off project. They’d changed their singer and their name; their mastermind, a strange little man named Stephin Merritt, was in the process of recording a CD as the Magnetic Fields, named after a book by André Breton and Philippe Soupault. That album, Distant Plastic Trees, came out only in England at first. A friend taped it for me, and I almost wore the tape out playing it for everyone I knew, and then copying it for most of them. Another friend released one of its songs as a single on his tiny Boston label, Harriet Records; “100,000 Fireflies” became a small classic of the American independent pop underground. Not a hit, exactly–the Magnetic Fields have never had a hit, or anything close to one. What they do have is a hard core of devotees.

Through the 1990s, the Magnetic Fields continued to be something of a secret, spread by word of mouth. Merritt took over singing, in his deadpan baritone; the band’s lineup stabilized to include guitarist John Woo, drummer/keyboardist/singer Claudia Gonson and cellist Sam Davol. Side projects emerged: The 6ths (named after the hardest word for lispers to pronounce–their first album was Wasps’ Nests), in which Merritt’s songs were sung by guest vocalists; Future Bible Heroes, a collaboration with Gonson and multi-instrumentalist Chris Ewen; a “goth-bubblegum” joke band, the Gothic Archies… And Merritt kept producing Magnetic Fields albums, refining his songwriting and developing increasingly eccentric sounds in the studio.

In late 1999, he pulled off a magnificent “stunt,” as he called it. 69 Love Songs was exactly what it claimed to be–a three-CD set, with five vocalists singing Merritt-written love songs in every twentieth-century pop genre he could pastiche, parody or execute with a straight face. It got people’s attention. I was there the first time Merritt played a dozen Love Songs in public, accompanied only by a ukulele, at a tiny East Village basement club with a dripping ceiling, and the first time the Magnetic Fields played all sixty-nine over two nights, at the Knitting Factory, a smallish TriBeCa club with a capacity of roughly 400 standing people. (Cheers erupted after the first chorus of “Papa Was a Rodeo”–which most of the crowd hadn’t even heard before.) And I was there the last time they played the whole thing, to a sold-out Lincoln Center audience, as part of the “American Songbook” series.

Since 69LS, Merritt has released a second 6ths album, Hyacinths & Thistles; a couple of Future Bible Heroes discs; music for two stage adaptations of Chinese operas; a song for the audio editions of Lemony Snicket’s books for children (Snicket’s alter ego, Daniel Handler, sometimes plays accordion with the Magnetic Fields); and a handful of minor new tunes for two soundtracks, Eban and Charley and Pieces of April. But it’s been almost five years since the Magnetic Fields released a proper album, and they’ve now moved from the midsized independent label Merge (home of scrappy rock artists including Superchunk and Neutral Milk Hotel) to the major label Nonesuch (home of distinctly non-scrappy, non-rock artists like Randy Newman and the Kronos Quartet).

I can’t pretend to write about Merritt’s work anymore with anything but a fan’s obsessive affection and nitpickiness (and, full disclosure, I’ve gotten to be friendly with Gonson over the past couple of years). But Merritt is, above all, a formalist. He often seems to write songs about love, because that’s traditionally an appropriate subject for what he really likes: pop songs. His new album is all about the subjectivity of love, which makes it somehow formally fitting to address it subjectively, as one of those devotees.

The title of the Magnetic Fields’ new record is i–lower-case–a formal gesture if ever there was one. For one thing, all of its song titles begin with the letter I. They are, in fact, arranged in alphabetical order, from “I Die” through “It’s Only Time.” (This was going to be the organizational principle behind 69LS for a while, too, until good sense prevailed, but that set still begins with “Absolutely Cuckoo” and ends with “Zebra.”) And the lower-casing suggests that Merritt is trying to deflate the expectations for a follow-up to 69LS. Thirteen of its fourteen songs have a first-person narrator, an “I,” almost always a diminished or lower-cased self–one who feels that he’s undeserving of his object of desire. Counting 69LS as three separate albums (it was released that way too), i is the ninth Magnetic Fields album; if their debut Distant Plastic Trees is a), then i is, well, i). But it could also mean the Roman numeral I: As the first major-label album by the project for which he’s best known, this is Merritt’s most vigorous attempt to break through to the mainstream of popular culture.

i is certainly the most “normal”-sounding album he’s made so far. The band’s acoustic instruments are more prominent than they’ve been before on record; almost every track is populated by an impressive array of plucked, strummed, hammered and bowed devices, sometimes recorded to simulate the peculiar synthesizer textures of earlier albums. Merritt’s songwriting, on the other hand, has scarcely changed. When I reviewed 69LS, I made the error of comparing him to Cole Porter, as easy shorthand for “American popular song”–Lorenz Hart is probably closer to what he’s got in mind, at least lyrically. (He’s capable of the kind of super-condensed, old-fashioned wit that implies: “I mumble some jumble/You kiss me, I’m hist’ry/I’m tongue-tied and useless again.” And the tiny dog he carries everywhere is named Irving, after Berlin.) His other songwriting ideal, though, is ABBA: the very antithesis of pop music as cult object. “I don’t know why Whitney Houston doesn’t do one of my songs,” he complained, tongue only slightly in cheek, when I interviewed him some years ago. “A lot of them are blank enough for her to play around with, and have bland enough lyrics for the meaning to be in the singing rather than in the lyrics.”

That’s debatable. (Sample line from one of i‘s mournful ballads: “This outpouring of emotion/As boring as an ocean/Is this what they used to call love?”) In fact, he sings a lot of his own songs as if they’re prefabricated machines that only need to be performed as written, affectlessly, to let the composition do its work. Merritt is a big fan of genre, because genres come with preconceptions, and that gives him something to upend. He loves to invert songwriting clichés, and to indulge in them. “I Looked All Over Town” ingeniously literalizes one of the laziest rhymes in the songwriter’s dictionary, “clown” and “town”–the lyric concerns the narrator, wearing a clown suit, rising into the air as he holds one of his balloons–but also commits the almost-as-lazy “face”/”disgrace” rhyme.

A longtime fan will inevitably find other nits to pick on i. For the first time, Merritt is repeating himself: “Infinitely Late at Night” is 69LS‘s “Blue You,” but less so, and the same goes for “In an Operetta” (69LS‘s “For We Are the King of the Boudoir”). “I Don’t Believe You” is a re-recording of a six-year-old single. There’s also the ongoing issue of Merritt’s scansion. An ideal lyric, conventionally, is one whose spoken rhythm fits its music, with stressed syllables and stressed beats in the same place. As usual, Merritt violates this rule rather cavalierly. He warps “infinite” to make it rhyme with “in it” in two different songs here; in a third, “Infinitely Late at Night” (sense a theme?), there’s a line that goes “I feel like I’m in a falling elevator”–and “falling” comes out with a heavy stress on the second syllable. And so on.

But “Irma”–the one song on i without a first-person narrator–inverts even that flaw. At first blush, it’s a sweet little ditty, led by ukulele, that he’s crooning absent-mindedly. He phrases the lyric exactly the way the melody suggests–and it makes no sense to the ear. The second verse, as sung, goes “Was never what it once was/Shouldn’t really drive any more/Either as if in answer/With a sound like blowing up your.” The meaning of the lyric is enjambed about as far as it can be; the words on either side of the verse make it perfectly grammatical if it’s punctuated correctly. The idea, perhaps, is that Merritt knows damn well where his words’ sense and stress lie, and a little syllable-bending doesn’t interfere with the sense of a pop lyric–especially when it’s attached to a good-enough melody.

He’s never been short of those. The centerpiece of i is “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend,” a bitter, miserable and stunningly catchy disco song (an acoustic disco song); its tune and sentiment are essentially the photographic reverse of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me.” The bridge uses its awkward breaks and stresses to its advantage: “I wanted you tonight/I walked around a lot/Wishing you were here to keep me from sleeping/With anyone who might/Want me or even not/Some guys have a beer and they’ll do anything.” That “anything” is accented on its second syllable, but it sounds more emphatic that way: “a-ny-thing.”

A lot of the triumphs of i are, as is often the case with Merritt these days, formalist and funny. There’s “If There’s Such a Thing as Love,” a mock-exhausted Tin Pan Alley come-on that’s less “let’s do it” than “let’s get it over with.” (“When I was two and a half,” Merritt mutters, “my mama said to me/Love is funny, you will laugh/Till the day you turn three.”) There’s “I’m Tongue-Tied,” each of whose verses is twice as fast as the previous one. There’s “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore,” one of his sly little ready-mades, with a chord progression as old as the Muses: “Think of me as just your fan/Who remembers every dress you ever wore/Just a bad comedian/Your new boyfriend’s better than.”

But what Merritt actually is, even more than a formalist, is a romantic. He’s just very guarded about it. After thirty-five minutes of jokes and feints, i ends with “It’s Only Time,” one of his most exquisite and least witty songs ever. “I’ll walk your lands/And swim your sea,” Merritt sings, his heart bared. And then, alongside a flash of atonality–perhaps feedback, perhaps just a treatment of Davol’s cello: “Marry me. Marry me.” Maybe establishing his ironist credentials for most of i makes it seem more meaningful when his walls of ice melt. Nonetheless, what Merritt wants–what the point of Popular Song, capital-P capital-S, is–is to be popular: to have an endless chorus of I’s enthralled by a little i. As smart and amusing as his wordplay and genre-exercises are, they’re not what’s going to do the trick. The unabashed tenderness, gorgeousness and craft of songs like “It’s Only Time” might.

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