Stephin Merritt actually misfires - indie rock community aghast!
Despite what you may think, Future Bible Heroes are not ultramodern evangelists sent to save us from the vileness of modern society. Rather, they are another one of singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt’s bazillion creative outlets. To say that Stephin Merritt is a prolific songwriter is a bit like saying the New York Yankees are a successful team—neither claim does justice. Merritt, is the brainchild behind the incomparable Magnetic Fields, as well as the 6ths, Gothic Archie’s and 1,000 other efforts. Amazingly, Merritt has always managed to maintain a level of quality that always seems to vary between mind blowing brilliance and very good. The Bible Heroes are Merritt’s lo-fi synth outlet, with their 1997 debut Memories of Love ranking amongst his best works.
Now, despite the hours I’ve spent listening to Merritt’s work I am going to commit indie rock blasphemy. Merritt may be the finest songwriter of the last 10 years, he may be the underground Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Otis Redding wrapped in one—but Eternal Youth is not very good. In fact, since the release of his opus 69 Love Songs he’s been on a slippery slope. Perhaps, when he released the 6ths sophomore effort Hyacinths and Thistles hot on the heels of 69 Love Songs disappointment was to be expected. After all, most artists have trouble coming up with 12 good songs and Merritt had flawlessly written three albums worth all at once. But now, it’s going on three years since his finest hour and one would think he’d have plenty of time to replenish his cache of songs.
Other than the 6ths, this is the first Merritt project since the Magnetic Fields debut albums Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus, on which he doesn’t sing. Instead, he hands the reins over to frequent collaborator, Claudia Gonson, who handles vocal duties on all 16 tracks. Gonson’s voice is a fine mix between beautiful and utilitarian and she’s able to pull off the songs about missed or lost love well. The problem is that Merritt does not really give her anything to work with.
Eternal Youth is mostly comprised of recycled ‘80s beats and what sound like Depeche Mode and Erasure out-takes, rarely displaying Merritt’s flair for pop exploration. At times the Future Bible Heroes sound like mid-‘80s imitators Anything Box, the only thing missing is the bad Flock of Seagulls haircuts. The fourth track, “A Thousand Lovers in a Day”, may be the worst song Merritt has ever penned, with Gonson droning over a mind numbingly boring track that goes no where. “Smash the Beauty Machine” sounds like Erasure trying to write a theme song for an episode of The Love Boat. What’s most shocking is the number of forgettable tracks, something Merritt typically manages to avoid. Meanwhile, the 30-second sonic snippets that are thrown in between tracks begin to get annoying by the second time through.
Of course true genius cannot be completely stifled. Even if this is one of Merritt’s weakest efforts, it has its moments. The opening number “Losing Your Affection” features the classic Merritt refrain “I would rather rub the hair of a bear in her lair in the opposite direction / I would rather put the make on a rattlesnake / Than be losing your affection”. His unique life view that the key to happiness is success at love and in the sack, is once again on fine display. Merritt’s recognition that a large part of human motivation comes from the loins has always made his songs feel so true. His commitment to those beliefs has added to his appeal by making him sound like Morrissey without the guilt. Merritt also scores on “I’m a Vampire” where he details the love life of the Queen of the Dead who can kill at will but can’t find a good lay. Finally, on “From Dying Stars” his use of synthesizers recaptures some of the naïve magic of his seminal releases.
Eternal Youth is a mixed bag and strictly for Merritt extremists. While it has its moments, they never soar as high as the bad moments swing low. It would be easy to claim that Merritt shot his load with 69 Love Songs, but I doubt that’s the case, Merritt’s simply too good for that. However, unless you can’t live without every Merritt effort steer clear of Eternal Youth.
// Notes from the Road
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