Stephin Merritt

Shannon Wearing
Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt

City: Brooklyn, New York
Venue: Brooklyn Academy of Music
Date: 2002-10-11
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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.