Unlike his heroes Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and Abba, who "wrote incredibly simple songs with extremely well worked arrangements giving every song an iconic quality you couldn't believe it hadn't been done before," Stephin Merritt has remained an enigma and somewhat still obscure genius of contemporary music who never really fit in with the 90's slacker bravado or the modern day indie-band beardo personas that are so popularized today.
[jump] Instead, his body of work resembles a niche of Americana of days past of songwriters who churned out brilliant lyricism and whimsy that's impossibly effortless when melded with the complexity of his own downtrodden droopy dog demeanor creating something unique to Merritt's real life experience. In Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magentic Fields we get a peak at the progression of this career and evolution of their process.
"I come up with most my song ideas while sitting in dark gay bars listening to thumping disco music," deadpans Merritt, as we are guided through the maze of his NYC apartment and home studio, cluttered with old photographs, journals, Chinese metal toys, an endless collection of ukuleles and Rhyming Dictionaries.
Influencing so many bands including Superchunk, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes and Peter Gabriel, who calls Merritt "one of America's greatest songwriters," the Magnetic Fields have maintained a consistent vision of realizing Stephin's music while at the same time following his often sporadic but thoughtful approach to inhabiting a myriad of influences and genres. Most notably in the ambitious 1999 release, 69 Love Songs and exercize in dissonance, 2008's Distortion, the film reveals to fans how the often difficult musician executes his form in directing his hired hands amongst a arsenal of synths, weird percussion and complex arrangements with remarkable results.
Perhaps what's most heartfelt and revealing in the film is the unique relationship between Merritt and self-proclaimed "fag hag" friend, Claudia Gonson, who's taken their teenage high school friendship to unforeseen levels as a musician, collaborator, manager and "mother bird" to Stephin and his band's 20-year existence. What's most telling of their dynamic is Stephin's eventual decision to leave their East Coast base for Hollywood, where he's pursued his ambition to be in the film world making soundtracks for movies, something that is perhaps long overdue more since the success of his song, "The Book of Love," that perfectly complimented the elegant J Lo/Richard Gere vehicle in 2004, Shall We Dance.
It's never too late to fall in love with the music of Stephin Merritt. If you aren't already, chances are you will once you've dove into his extensive catalog and fall even harder after seeing this long-awaited documentary that's been 10 years in the making.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields will be screened for two showings Thursday November 18, 7pm and 9pm, at the Cedar Cultural Center