What We Talk About When We Say Nothing

I want to love you, but you're always building a wall between us: Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields
Chris Burk

Stephin Merritt is the much-lauded leader of the Magnetic Fields, with whom he has been firing off erudite bubblegum, lonesome synthesizer C&W, and whatever has struck his fancy since the early '90s. He's also commandeered several side projects, including the 6ths, whose records are mostly sung by guest vocalists. His songs are short and so are his sentences. There were a number of pregnant pauses in our recent phone conversation, which gave us both time to think.

What City Pages says: When the first 6ths album came out, you said that you directed the singers to emote as little as possible. Can you talk about that aesthetic?

What Stephin Merritt says: I'm not sure I directly asked them not to emote, but I gave them the demo recordings in which my voice was completely expressionless, and I asked them not to play around with that too much. I didn't want them to be changing the melody or tacking on whooping at the end or anything like that. Sometimes when I give a singer a song, they think of it as a starting point. And I don't think of it that way.

What City Pages thinks: Here, Merritt sounds a bit like Cole Porter, whom he has been absurdly compared to. The Porter comparisons have less to do with Merritt's music, which tends to be simple (more Brill Building than Broadway, more Richard Carpenter than Richard Rodgers), than with his occasional fondness for unconventional rhyme schemes. Or his persona, which is "urbane," which is another word for "gay." On Magnetic Fields' 2004 release i, Merritt flirts with pre-rock or anti-rock pop--the lugubrious and dinky "I Die," the delightful "In an Operetta," the "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"-derived "Is This What They Used to Call Love?" But that isn't where Merritt's at his best. He still excels at doleful ditties, bright, even bouncy tunes paired with lyrics that are both sincerely, deeply sad and good-humored about their sadness. He is, it seems, not a modest man, but he is a modest songwriter. Like Elvis Costello or Paul Simon, he comes closest to greatness when he's furthest from Greatness, when he's churning out tunes as if he's on a tight deadline and high on inspiration.

But back to Cole Porter. Like most of the great Broadway composers (and like Merritt), Porter didn't much care for jazz. He didn't like singers messing with his melodies. If the song were supposed to end with a bluesy glissando, Porter might have argued, it would say so on the sheet music. Considering that Merritt as a singer has a contentious relationship with pitch, he is perhaps not in the greatest position to argue for the sacrosanctity of his tunes. Every time he applies his wonderful, froggy, flat voice to them, they're changed a little. But it's not a "completely expressionless" voice, as he claims. His singing has a touch of Nico's flat-affect syndrome, but there's some of Ray Davies's plaintive croak, too, and he has a cunning croon, as on "Infinitely Late at Night." It seems to say: Come hither--wait, that's too close.

What CP says: Are you a Judy Collins fan?

What Merritt says: I'm a huge fan of the Judy Collins album In My Life. It's a definite template for me.

What CP thinks: I heard that this guy doesn't suffer fools lightly, which puts me at a real disadvantage, but gosh, I think we're really hitting it off now. He and I share a fondness for Judy Collins, and ABBA, and Stephen Sondheim, which might suggest that both of us are white. I wonder: Do the Magnetic Fields, with their rhythmic austerity, trebly acoustic palette, dry vocals, and paucity of improvisation, play the whitest American music that one doesn't dance to under the direction of a caller or while wearing a polka-dot dress? If so, why would that bother me?

What CP says: Do some of your lyrics make you laugh, even after you've been performing them for a while?

What Merritt says: I'm a sucker for the ending of "It's Only Time." It doesn't make me laugh, exactly. Things don't generally make me laugh more than three or four times.

What CP thinks: It's funny, until a few weeks ago I thought this guy was an Englishman or a New Zealander who had settled in New York as a young adult. But that's not true. He's just a regular old American. That troubled me, because I thought the fussy and pretentious aspects of his music, which fortunately are greatly outweighed by airy and witty aspects, were attributable to him being from England or a former English colony, where I understand smart people don't have to pretend not to be pretentious. I must have had him mixed up with the guy from Luna, or maybe Cary Grant.

Speaking of misinformation and actors, when John Ritter died last year, a friend and I had a friendly debate about the extent of the late actor's talent, which he held was being grossly overstated in newspaper obituaries, and which I maintained was measurably above average...

What Merritt thinks: Why is this idiot thinking about John Ritter? He should be thinking about me.

What CP thinks: ...for evidence, I cited Ritter's work in Sling Blade, Tadpole, and You Can Count on Me. Choosing those movies, and not Bride of Chucky, was my attempt to position Ritter as something of a hipster, the sort of guy who turns down lucrative parts in farcical situation comedies to tackle roles in independent pictures. My argument started to disintegrate when my opponent pointed out that Mr. Ritter wasn't actually in You Can Count on Me, thus calling into suspicion the veracity of my other contentions. "Mistakes," I said, quoting the late Ronald Reagan, "were made."

What Merritt thinks: What a jerk.

What CP says: How about crying? Do your songs make you cry?

What Merritt says: Before I recorded them. Some songs, yeah, I've been known to burst into tears onstage.

What CP thinks: "It's Only Time" has made me cry. I should him tell him so, but I'm shy. What a beautiful song! There's Jimmy Webb in there, and the Byrds, and Sondheim, in how the melody floats and drones and then rises tremulously, the voice cracking, the heart breaking with joy. Is this a gay-marriage anthem? "Why should I stop loving you/A hundred years from now?/It's only time." As with the Beatles' "It's Only Love" or the Stones' "It's Only Rock & Roll," the only before time, of course, precedes what is, or seems to be, everything. When I'm off the phone, I'll play "It's Only Time," look at my window, and watch this sad, beautiful world. I keep forgetting. It's good to be alive.

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