As Hundreds Cheer

The Glum Triumph of The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt was having a bad night—though, bundled in layers of brown corduroy and topped by an inapt red hunting hat, he showed nothing more extreme than his perpetual glumness. The sound was echoing through U Penn's brick-walled Harrison Auditorium, hurting his ears.

When he lit one of his cherished Camel Lights, a security guard told him smoking was forbidden. And the stage lighting was erratic and dim, because a child of about nine was at the board. Every time he looked at the front row, he noticed a guy cleaning his glasses. And the 750 collegians who'd turned up for the Magnetic Fields on a Sunday night in November were attending the set with a respectful silence their professors would surely envy.

At least they were polite. At TMF's previous Philadelphia gig, club patrons briefly considered the quartet's odd instrumentation and studied, low-affect vocals, then threw bottles and shouted "Go away, faggot!" Here there was even a ripple of titters at a few funny lyrics. So the first time the drum-machine intro misfired and he had to abort "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," the most carnal song from the three-CD opus 69 Love Songs, Merritt apologized glumly. A few minutes later, when it happened again, he was driven to an uncharacteristic show of spontaneous emotion, snapping, almost shouting, "Cut!"

The best-reviewed album of the year, 69 Love Songs spills facility and wit over its three hours, as Merritt and three other singers celebrate or condemn romance in its myriad guises, from boy-girl to less common permutations, bending gender roles with cantankerous glee. But even reasonably smart audiences don't know what to make of Merritt and his music—in a hometown NYU crowd at Irving Plaza 11 days later, the student next to me couldn't get over the absence of a rhythm section.

With a few exceptions, triple studio records have capped long success or at least a commercial breakthrough—George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, the Clash's Sandinista!, Prince's Crystal Ball. In six previous records on the North Carolina indie Merge, Magnetic Fields have narrowly achieved cult success, with average sales of about 10,000 copies. Since its September 7 release, 69 Love Songs has already surpassed that figure, even though the box-set version (the discs are also available singly) was out of print for several weeks; Merritt reports bitterly that Merge manufactured only 2500 copies, which sold out instantly.

In assembling what he calls "a backward manifesto for the 20th century," Merritt alludes to nearly every musical genre: Gilbert & Sullivan and OMD, the Carter Family and Leonard Cohen, John Giorno and war propaganda, often combined. It sounds as if disgruntled elves in Santa's factory are recording late at night, with a drum machine Kraftwerk discarded in 1975. Pure bravura, with an emphasis on musical theater's passion for clever rhymes, 69 Love Songs is Merritt flaunting his scholarship and skills. It's almost what the dictionary calls an idyll: "a long narrative poem on a major theme." "That's half the point; it's a stunt," he concurs. "It's audacious, and you think it would be awful, but it isn't. It's too big to be silly. If it were 40 love songs, that would be silly. Sixty-nine is grandiose."

But as an appeal to an indie generation that suspects grandiosity and lacks Merritt's faith in artifice, it's also a masterpiece without an audience. Here is Merritt giving his natural constituency the cold shoulder: "I have no interest in remaining in the indie-rock ghetto. I don't listen to indie rock, per se, I don't see myself as connected to indie rock, I don't have indie rock friends. I think indie rock is over." Oh yeah, this masterpiece is also his farewell, he claims. "I certainly won't make any more records that have anything to do with indie rock—or with rock, actually."

Stephin Merritt is a gay east villager who has recorded mostly for indie labels but has little affinity with indie culture, an introvert who spends many of his nights in a gay bar, not socializing, but writing songs in a notebook while listening to a jukebox. Although he was never closeted, and on the Magnetic Fields' 1990 debut Distant Plastic Trees called his publishing company Gay & Loud (the other half refers to his manager, drummer, keyboardist, singer, and close friend Claudia Gonson), his poker face keeps emotions closeted. For all the press about TMF—plus Merritt's synth-pop Future Bible Heroes, "absurdly sad and gloomy" Gothic Archies, and guest-star-fronted 6ths—little has been written about his life. You would never know from his press clips that he's more than glum—he's severely depressive.

Many people—gay, indie, or both—are baffled by Merritt. "I don't know him particularly well, even though I've spent a lot of time with him," says one indie luminary who praises Merritt's sense of humor. "He's odd, and dour, and a bit unsocialized."

A few years ago, in the heyday of indie crossover, he met with the staff of one major label, where an employee boasted that artists retained full control over album art. Ever the skeptic, Merritt asked, "So it would be OK if I put child porn on the cover of my record?" Needless to say, the label passed. "He's totally negative, impossible to deal with, but he's one of the smartest people I've ever met," says a witness to that meeting.

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