As Hundreds Cheer

The Glum Triumph of The Magnetic Fields

No one, Merritt says, believed he could write 69 good love songs. "It was clear they were humoring me." It took him a full year, "working whenever I was awake. I had no life. I sat around all day writing songs. Which is often what I do all day long, anyway."

One of the grandest of the 69, "A Pretty Girl Is Like . . . ," is a deconstructive answer song to Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." Merritt had been reading Ulysses, and considering how writers objectify women in metaphors. In the lyrics ("A pretty girl is like a violent crime/If you do it wrong, you could do time"), he celebrates, mocks, and critiques song similes, adopting "an exaggeratedly sexist, male point of view. It's a lot of baggage for one song," he acknowledges, "but that's part of why it's funny."

He still listens to 69 Love Songs, and reconsiders his choices. For instance, he regrets not assigning "I Don't Want to Get Over You" to another singer. "My voice always says, 'I Don't Want to Get Over You,' " he grumbles. "I could sing 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' and you'd remember it as 'I Don't Want to Get Over You.' "

He doesn't even delight in the record's acclaim, which routinely labels him a genius. "I prefer 'whiz,' " he deadpans. It's not fun to be called a genius by The New York Times? "Well, if it's in The New York Times, it must be true."

Next, Merritt is writing a musical with novelist Daniel Handler, in which the entire plot is carried by songs. The conceit may remind you of Evita, unless, like Merritt, you're familiar with an earlier precedent, Michel Legrand's score for the sappy 1964 hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And, frustrated that musicians have recycled "the same old goddamn thing, decade after decade," he vows to invent entirely new styles soon.

It's hard to gauge his sincerity when Merritt says, "I would like to be as successful as God. And as rich." He bristles at indie, but suspects the majors, who aren't leaping to sign him anyway. ("He's not exactly Kid Rock," says one A&R honcho, who considers the indie-rock experiment an expensive failure.) Given his British-identified distance, Merritt's view of himself comes clearest when he lists the people he identifies with.

First he names avant composer Harry Partch, "for his spunky iconoclasm and insistence on novelty," and Cole Porter, "for being a writer of light verse who has a facility with words—a big showoff." (Both were gay, he notes, "but that's not really why I identify with them.") And he cites Irving Berlin, "for being an artistic hack, but making a show of hackdom."

Next, he mentions the Buddah Records producers Kasenetz-Katz, "for inventing bubblegum pop, and doing everything themselves while pretending to be different people," David Bowie, for hiding within stage personas, and Annie Lennox "for making the subversion of one cliché the entire idea of a song."

Lastly, he names two folk artists: Grandma Prisbrey, a California senior who built "stained-glass windows from the junkyard," leaving behind a full village, now a registered landmark, created wholly from discarded objects; and Henry Darger, a Chicago loner who "had no life," and whose Byzantine writings and watercolors were discovered and celebrated only after he died a pauper.

Together, this motley comprises Stephen Merritt's self-portrait: visionary and crank, genius and charlatan, highbrow and lowdown. Music so encompasses his day, his mind, his identity, that he's become a human medley.

Magnetic Fields play Irving Plaza December 2.

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