1999's 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields was a masterpiece, a milestone for indie pop. Prior to its release, Stephin Merritt was already known as the guiding force, if not voice, behind other projects such as The Gothic Archies, The 6ths, and Future Bible Heroes. He had a group to play any style of music, depending upon which style of music he was working on. 69 Love Songs was a culmination of everything he had done to that point, a huge three-disc set of music in every conceivable style, with characters as numerous as there were songs. And every song was written about some aspect of love, from utter happiness to torpid bitterness. There had been nothing like it before, and it's unlikely anyone could take up the challenge to produce something of similar scope, intelligence and musicality.
Fast forward a year. Independent film director James Bolton was completing his first feature film, Eban & Charley, and asked Stephin Merritt to score his film for him. The film, which to this day has not been released outside of New York and Los Angeles (after playing at a few film festivals), hasn’t received very positive reviews. A film about the relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a 29-year-old man, it has been described as “Preachy and humorless, Eban & Charley shocks only by the quality of its numbing solipsism” (Ed Park, Village Voice). Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times described the film’s director as “simply out to bore people into submission”. Without seeing the film, it is hard to ascertain whether the soundtrack works well for the film itself, but a soundtrack should be able to stand on its own, to work as its own entity.
Eban & Charley, the soundtrack, is in some ways a departure for Stephin Merritt from his past output. This is the first record he has released under his own name, and has worked on entirely alone. The soundtrack’s 16 tracks (which clock in at less than 37 minutes) are divided into three distinct areas: five pop songs (with vocals), eight incidental instrumentals, and two instrumentals of traditional songs. The five tracks with vocals are closest to Merritt’s work with the Magnetic Fields. The upbeat “Poppyland” describes a kind of paradise to escape to, where “The people the gods forgive / Man, Poppyland is where they live”. The other songs with vocals are mostly somber fare, from “Maria Maria Maria”, which best demonstrates the effectiveness if Merritt’s baritone voice, to “Tiny Flying Player Pianos”, in which Merritt sings, “I hear their tinkling cacophony / Till, one by one / They sleep / Oh, if only I could sleep”.
These last lines of “Tiny Flying Pianos” describe very well many of the eight pieces of incidental film music on Eban & Charley. Incidental music in film is usually used during the transition of one scene to the next, or used as tension in the background with tone the opposite of the scene’s tone. In major Hollywood films, it usually goes unnoticed on a conscious level, which is by design the reason it is there. Many of the incidental music pieces on this soundtrack are made of nothing but “found’ sounds, from the whirring of wind-up toys, to music boxes and percussion instruments. There is a pattern involved in many of these “songs”, if they can be called that: usually the repetition of one sound over another, over and over. Some of it quite pretty, as in “Victorian Robots”, but mostly they are quite jarring, and incongruous with the vocal-based songs. Only the originals “Mother” and its companion “Mother Remembered”, and the two traditionals (“O Tannenbaum” and “Greensleeves”) come across as “typical” instrumentals. But even the latter two are recorded on an effects-laden piano, giving each a similar haunted, almost underwater sound.
Stephin Merritt’s decision to do this soundtrack, with its diverse styles, may at the outset seem a strange one. Another artist might have tried to capitalize on the critical and commercial success of 69 Love Songs and been quick to release something similar, familiar to his audience. Merritt is not this type of artist. He seems more than happy to have let some time pass, and to leave the sad pop song singer behind for a while. The soundtrack for Eban & Charley is not for the casual listener, though. Whether it worked well for its film cannot be answered here, but on its own, it really is a record for the die-hard completist. The experimental music here may not make for a good or accurate introduction to Stephin Merritt and his work. The Magnetic Fields have signed a deal with Nonesuch Records, which may mean more visibility for Merritt and his other projects, and rightfully so. Perhaps this is the reason he chose to release this under his own name, and (like when a traditional bandleader puts out a solo album) it will lead to even more interesting music from his band when it reconvenes. It will be intriguing, that is for certain.