It is a curious thing to see a rock show in an opera house. The smoking hipsters are replaced with polite and wholesome-looking theatre-going folk. Everyone sits down. Everyone applauds. It’s almost unnerving to hear indie pop as part of a largely middle-class and partly middle-aged, avant-garde art-appreciating audience. But this is the scene at the annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The festival includes a segment called “Next Wave of Song”, which highlights contemporary popular music that “breaks molds and takes risks”, to use their phrase. This year BAM chose Magnetic Field / Future Bible Hero / etc., etc. Stephin Merritt as one of their featured innovative tunesmiths, a selection which seems to promote his status from beloved pop musician to certified creative artist.
Of course, Stephin Merritt isn’t your average rock star to begin with. Considering Merritt’s interest in musical theatre and his persona as Noel Coward reincarnated, the Howard Gilman Opera House might just be a more suitable stage for him than a typical pop venue. Indeed, Merritt’s music is made for venues like these, and this was evident on this night from the warm audience reaction to his performance. Magnetic Fields concerts tend to take place in rock clubs, where most patrons are either too drunk or too cool to laugh at Merritt’s jokes. In the more auspicious BAM theatre, the audience was so quiet and focused that they seemed to catch, and heartily laugh at, every clever turn of phrase or unexpected rhyme.
Merritt is a bit of a ham. Though his facial expression changed not once during his hour on stage, and his interaction with the crowd was unwaveringly deadpan, his anti-charisma was overridden by the fact that he performed his entire set wearing a pink clown suit and playing a ukulele. The combination of absurd attire and forlorn countenance summons the kitschy, pathetic figure of the clown who entertains with tear-rimmed eyes. But the image is a fairly accurate visualization of Merritt’s oeuvre. His bass-range smoker’s voice and sardonic sense of humor makes his songs laughably, even cartoonishly solemn. In performance, Merritt turns his limitations of voice and stature into a joke, like on this night, when he scraped the bottom of his larynx to raspily sing, “If I were Napoleon…” from “Josephine”.
The set consisted largely of yet-to-be released songs Merritt has written for two of his bands, the Magnetic Fields and the 6ths, and members of the Fields intermittently came out to accompany him on piano, cello, and guitar. The new songs didn’t reveal a great departure from much of the Merritt canon. That is, there were lots of songs about his standard subjects: loneliness, dancing, and the moon. Merritt also pulled out some favorites from the 69 Love Songs collection, including a version of the crowd pleaser “Washington DC”, but with a very different approach to the chorus. On record, Magnetic Field Claudia Gonson spells out the city name cheerleader-style, but live Merritt replaced the enthusiastic shout with an equally humorous sultry whisper.
Merritt could almost be called a modern American Morrissey, except that he’s far more self-aware within his self-obsession. He pokes fun of the idea of the pop star as tortured artiste in one of the new songs he performed, belting out, “I’m lonely! / And I love it! / I’m sad! / And I don’t care!” He goes on to describe himself as “Narcissus in a seedy [or is that c.d.?] demimonde” and an “emperor on a golden throne”. The grief in which he wallows is, of course, so delightful because it is so productive, and results in the very songs that we were all giggling over in the aforementioned opera house.
This is the core of Merritt’s cleverness. He doesn’t just write narcissistic songs, but actually refers to himself as Narcissus. He doesn’t just cull from the tradition of Rodgers and Hart, but namedrops them in his lyrics. Merritt invalidates the listener who might dismiss him as derivative or vain, simply by pre-empting the accusation. But happily, he also doesn’t cast himself as the poster child of millennial irony. It’s to his credit that even with his sense of humor and self-awareness, he can pull off a line like “Marry me, and in your hands I will be free” without sounding either nauseatingly sappy or cynically sarcastic.
Considering how openly Merritt draws from musical theatre and traditional songwriting, it’s somewhat ironic to see him featured in a festival that emphasizes the contemporary and the innovative. But the evening’s performance verified that Merritt’s technique isn’t concerned with either boldly transcending or shamelessly appropriating traditionalism. Instead, he molds songwriting formula to suit his own peculiarities.