Stephin Merritt is a quirky and frighteningly prolific singer, songwriter, and multitalented musician whose multiple projects include solo work, four bands (The Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies, and the Sixths), musical theater productions, and film scores. Merritt has recorded a number of songs and albums as a solo artist (including a variation on the classic children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus,” for a recent Volvo commercial), but he is best known for his work with The Magnetic Fields, the group he founded in 1989 while living in Boston. Though the band’s lineup has changed over the years, Merritt has always retained the role of primary composer, lyricist, and arranger.
The Magnetic Fields released a consistent stream of pop-influenced albums throughout the 1990s. The group—usually a quartet comprised of Merritt, Claudia Gonson, John Woo, and Sam Davol, with numerous guest vocalists and musicians—gained more widespread recognition with the releases of their concept-based albums, the three-disc opus 69 Love Songs (1999) and i (2004). Merritt conceived the idea behind 69 Love Songs (literally, sixty-nine songs about love, split evenly onto three discs) before he began recording the albums, which emerged from a fascination with Broadway show tunes and the diva-centric nature of cabaret. “In i, the title came about in the middle of making the record,” Merritt recalls, having returned to New York from a trip to LA. “Halfway through, I realized that half the songs started with the letter ‘i,’ so I changed the rest.”
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in October, Merritt stopped at a West Village café to discuss his recent projects and the upcoming Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, the group’s first release in nearly four years. The record marks a departure from the band’s concept-driven format. “The record was mixed and partly mastered before we started calling it Distortion,” Merritt says. “The title relates to the production rather than the lyrics.” Distortion is packed with Merritt’s usual pop sensibilities, flitting from tongue-in-cheek ballads to mournful dirges.
Weighing in at just under forty minutes, a length Merritt has previously cited as the maximum listenable duration of a pop album, Distortion features the Magnetic Fields’ standard lineup (Merritt, Gonson, Woo, and Davol). There are vocal contributions from Shirley Simms, who previously appeared on 69 Love Songs, as well as Daniel Handler (better known as the curmudgeonly author Lemony Snicket), who contributes accordion tracks on three songs. Recorded in New York and Los Angeles, the album features an array of instrumentation, including cello and Farfisa organ. Distortion lives up to its name, retaining an echo-filled vintage lo-fi sound.
One of the most powerful songs on the album is “Xavier Says,” a poignant ballad drawn from Merritt’s well-known penchant for composing songs in unconventional locales. “I usually write my songs while sitting in gay bars. Gay bars with rather elderly clientele. I’m able to eavesdrop on them, and I thought I might as well write a song about them rather than have them interrupt my songwriting.” The song “contains actual quotes. There were two grown men, one calling the other Zsa Zsa—I guess that’s the new version of Blanche. Often, the people having these conversations are terminally ill.” The lyrics recall a bygone era of glory and glamour, of movie starlets and sloe gin fizzes. Delivered over an airy backdrop of piano feedback and shaky reverb, Merritt coos, “to your health, you ratfink scum,” with a nonchalance that belies the sad fate of the toastmaster.
The Magnetic Fields will launch a brief, seven-city tour in support of Distortion. “My ideal lineup would be no opening act, and there’s just us,” he commented, noting past difficulties in maintaining consistency between soundchecks and in-concert sound levels when the Magnetic Fields share the stage (and soundboard) with other bands. Instead the band has pursued unconventional openers. “Sometimes we have opening acts that are nonmusical, like readers or film, to warm up the audience. “ Merritt pauses, considering the roster of authors, composers, and directors he has worked with in the past. “Woody Allen would be excellent.”
– Connie Hwong
Magnetic Fields: www.houseoftomorrow.com