Diphthong Songs


Stephin Merritt’s grand project involves nothing less than the mass production of pop. Those 69 love songs reveal new facets every time you hold them up to the light, but for their workhorse architect, the notion of sheer quantity provides its own cheap thrills and conceptual satisfactions. Fresh off the Merritt assembly line, just a year after the Magnetic Fields magnum opus: a sparkling new EP from his Casio-pop outfit the Future Bible Heroes and the long-awaited second album from his all-star revue the 6ths, mercilessly following up 1995’s lisper-unfriendly Wasps’ Nests with Hyacinths and Thistles.

Confidently ridiculous and matter-of-factly wise, the 6ths record is a lovely collection of songs about pining, yearning, coveting, aching, “kissing the bottle wishing it was you.” Needless to say, it’s also quite funny. The clichés of heartache are, for Merritt, the foundation of great tragicomedy. Tender entreaties, unblushing effusions, outsize pledges, drunken recriminations—in each instance, torrid sentimentality rubs up against a cool, deconstructive wit too often mistaken for mere irony.

The eminent indie-rock vocalists on Wasps’ Nests (Lou Barlow, Barbara Manning, Dean Wareham) were directed to perform with detached ennui—a brilliantly perverse exercise in megalomanic ventriloquism. Merritt takes the opposite tack on Hyacinths, compiling a dementedly eclectic guest list and allowing personalities other than his own to dominate: compatible highbrows (Momus, the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon), idiosyncratic divas (Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, Sally Timms), new wave survivors (Gary Numan, Marc Almond), excavated folkies (Melanie, Odetta).

More than his other incarnations, the 6ths showcase Merritt’s facility with perspective shifts, his profound understanding of artifice, his instinct for perfect fits and mind-boggling juxtapositions. He does occasionally labor the joke—for instance, assigning Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, reliably cutesy and bashful, to the coy, tricky-to-pronounce “Lindy-Lou” or embellishing the tiki-tacky sound effects and lava/lover wordplay of “Volcana!” with Marc Almond’s vampy histrionics. More often than not, though, Merritt proves a canny matchmaker: Neil Hannon gives the pithy atheist’s manifesto, “The Dead Only Quickly,” a perfectly pompous authority. A defrosted Gary Numan conjures up something approaching hushed melancholy amid the synth swirls and whooshes of the homoerotic electro-sea-shanty “The Sailor in Love With the Sea.”

Save for one gust of pure giddiness—the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Katharine Whalen cooing sweet nothings on the vaporous “You You You You You”—the most luscious songs are marinated in heartbreak. Momus, disconcertingly angelic and backed only by Brian Dewan’s insinuating zither, pleads for one final memento from his departing lover on “As You Turn to Go.” Sally Timms, on a bewitching gurgling-Moog ballad, begs hers to “Give Me Back My Dreams.” A bereft Sarah Cracknell, all delicious breathy equipoise on “Kissing Things,” is reduced to smooching inanimate objects. A smitten Bob Mould, accompanied by pianist Kenny Mellman (Herb of Kiki and Herb), asks for just one dance from an unidentified object of desire; the title provides cruel clarification (“He Didn’t”). Strangest and saddest of all, on “I’ve Got New York,” a convincingly pickled Melanie staggers to a pay phone in the wee hours to call her ex. “Surprise!” she growls. “It’s me. It’s drunk. I’m three.” With Margaret Leng Tan’s furious toy-piano plinks suggesting a possessed music box, the Woodstock/Boogie Nights alum launches into an excoriating, despairing confessional. Unaccountably thrilling, the song is also a chillingly stark illustration of alcohol-fueled bravado and truth-telling—the bitter flip side to the Pet Shop Boys’ “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk.”

As the Future Bible Heroes, Merritt and coconspirator Christopher Ewen pay homage to the soothingly processed splutters and thumps and squelches of ’80s electro-pop (no obvious Wedding Singer nostalgia—we’re talking early OMD, late Sparks, Propaganda, a touch of Vince Clarke). With the fabulously synthetic surfaces forming a cozy cocoon around Merritt’s reflexive cynicism, the new FBH EP is a shiny, acidic counterpoint to the twilit wallow of Hyacinths. The silken ballad “Café Hong Kong,” graced by the airy, limpid tones of Merritt’s frequent collaborator-manager Claudia Gonson, weaves a series of bloodstained billets-doux from the front lines into a gruesome black-comic sob story. The plainspoken bitterness of another song, worthy of Neil Tennant at his most unforgivingly brusque, is summed up in the title: “Good Thing I Don’t Have Any Feelings.” But even at his snarkiest, Merritt’s increasing dexterity, his effortless command of paradox and ambiguity, is evident: “I’m Lonely (and I Love It)” may seem like an exuberant post-breakup fuck-you, but there’s ample evidence of residual heartsickness in its hyperbolic jubilation (“I’m as lonely as Narcissus gazing in his mirrored pond/Wearing all the clothes you hate and going back to blond”).

Business as usual at the Merritt plant: Twenty more meta-love songs, flamboyantly disposable and almost all absolutely essential—prefab pop with a lifetime warranty.

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