“I don’t feel there’s any need for me to make reggaeton records,” states Stephin Merritt—and it’s hard to disagree with him.
Although Stephin Merritt has built his career around the obtuse—recording everything from folk songs to jazz workouts, distortion-fueled rock numbers to keyboard-laced dance experiments—he’s never been much of a follower of the latest trends in pop music, instead spending his time pursuing his own muse. Case in point: Merritt’s last two discs with his long-standing outfit the Magnetic Fields have been as deliberately oppositional as two albums could be, with 2008’s Distortion suddenly submerging his unique brand of chamber pop into an ocean of amplifier feedback, while this year’s Realism featured not a single electrical instrument in the bunch, with violins and cellos fluttering around his detailed group singalongs and acoustic pluckings. Then, for every sweet melody he stumbles upon, he marries it to a line like “I want you crawling back to me / Down on your knees, yeah / Like an appendectomy / Sans anesthesia”.
That line (from Realism‘s sweet-yet-bitter opener “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”) perfectly sums up the contradictory nature of Merritt’s music that ultimately makes it as compelling as it is (when asked about why he mixes the optimistic with the downright dour at times, Merritt said “I get that from ABBA. They did that most of the time.”). Merritt has a way of slowly upsetting listener’s expectations, both with individual songs and entire albums. His undisputed masterpiece—1999’s triple-disc set 69 Love Songs—was as big a gamble as both Merritt and his long-standing label Merge Records could have taken, releasing three full albums of brand-new material from what was widely considered a “cult artist”. Yet it was a calculated risk, and one that paid off in droves; not only did 69 Love Songs ultimately define Merritt’s legacy, but the very concept was enough to intrigue even casual listeners, who, once hooked on the Magnetic Fields’ sound, wound up coming back for more. His iconic track “Book of Love”, in fact, was recently covered on Peter Gabriel’s album Scratch My Back, although Gabriel’s version is markedly different from Merritt’s original.
“Well I was stunned,” states Merritt on hearing Gabriel’s version of “Book”, “because I first heard it at his recording studio in England with him standing there. ‘Let me play you this!’ If I could sing like Peter Gabriel, I would [Laughs]. But I suppose that if I could sing like Peter Gabriel I could also sing like a number of other things to avoid sounding exactly like Peter Gabriel so that he wouldn’t be annoyed with me. I find it so different from my version that it’s funny for the first few bars—well, only funny to me. It’s not something that I would’ve done with it, but I’m ecstatic that he’s done it.” When pressed on the notion that this could open the Magnetic Fields up to a whole new audience, Merritt states the facts quite simply: “Well yes! Celebrities are getting married to his version of that song—before it was just obscure people getting married to my version. Celebrities who I never heard of who are television stars.”
Yet even with people relating to Merritt’s songs on a deeply personal level, there are still those who will ascribe meaning to what Merritt is trying to say on each album. Immediately dismissing the notion that his discs are in any way confessional (“Why would I confess anything to an audience of tens of thousands?” he quips), Merritt doesn’t necessarily see much of a difference between people’s interpretation of his work and the stories and character studies that he presents in his lyrics:
“I don’t see that as a duality. There is no way I could keep people from running off with extra meaning—that’s how music works. That’d be true if there were no lyrics at all. My last two album titles—Distortion and Realism—have nothing to do with the lyrics. Yet that, for some reason, just cannot be accepted by journalists. They say, ‘Oh yeah, it has nothing to do with the lyrics … except for this one!’ And the pink color of the Distortion cover has nothing to do with the lyrics. You can assume that they do and run away with your own particular meaning. You can assume that Distortion is an album about black men or that Realism is about transparent women. Or, both of them are albums about [people who are] beheaded.”
There are times on Realism where Merritt invokes folk music archetypes that seem decades removed from the current scene, ranging from the rural singalong of “We Are Having a Hootenanny” to the music box melodies of “The Dolls’ Tea Party”. Yet these detours aren’t designed to merely showcase Merritt’s detailed knowledge of pop music’s vast history; instead, they wind up giving Realism an overall vibe that mixes antiquated styles with a modern sensibility to create something undeniably unique in today’s pop landscape. When asked if he ever feels the need to follow current trends, Merritt notes, “I don’t feel there’s any need for me to make reggaeton records.” He expands upon this concept:
“I’m old enough to know that reggaeton comes back every five years—not four or six, but five—and every five years there’s an article in TIME Magazine (it’s a pretty small article) about the revival of ballroom dancing. There are never any statistics given, but clearly it’s just that someone has gone to a dance class and discovered the world of ballroom dancing and has been told that more people are doing it. You know, this is the way the world works. It’s OK, but I don’t have to participate.”
Merritt may not see himself as part of any current scene, and he’s not likely to classify himself in any such context either, instead focusing on expanding and revising his own legacy. Around the time of Realism‘s release, Merritt was announced as not only the subject of a years-in-the-making feature-length documentary about his life with the Fields (called Strange Powers, which recently made its debut at SXSW), but also as the composer of an alternate score/musical for the 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (says Merritt: “I saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at [an] old town movie theatre in California—with their Mighty Wurlitzer—and it was like being a little boy who wants to become a fireman who says, ‘I wanna do that!’ So, here I am, doing it, but I’m doing it as a musical.”).
Yet one of the more interesting Merritt-related items of late has been the vinyl box set release of 69 Love Songs, its first major re-release in some time. When asked if he ever felt “haunted” by the legacy of that triple-disc achievement, Merritt notes, that was the very purpose of making it:
“It’s like having a business card or building a house—building a house that constitutes the business card. I wanted to have a calling card and be known for something, and it was my intention to be known for it. [Jean-Luc] Godard is probably always answering questions about Breathless and Hail Mary, despite the fact that people have no idea he’s done any movies before.“
As time marches on, Merritt seems more at ease with his legacy than ever before, happy to talk about his past achievements while similarly excited about his current ones. As a case in point, when asked about his proudest career accomplishment, Merritt related that he had been working hard on a radio version of Realism‘s “Seduced & Abandoned”, and—for the sake of argument—that was his proudest achievement at the moment.
No, he may never make a reggaeton record, but that’s because Stephin Merritt is too busy soldiering on down his own path—one that few, if any, will ever travel down again.
// Notes from the Road
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