Ethan Frome. Terrible book. You probably read it in high school. Edith Wharton’s oh-so-bleak novella—set in Starkfield (how very unsubtle), Massachusetts— tells the tale of its doomed titular “hero,” who, in an effort to “do the right thing,” marries Zeena, the woman who nursed his mother on her deathbed. But after he’s married, Ethan falls in love with Zeena’s cousin, Mattie. And after considerable trials and tribulations (including a broken pickle dish), the pair ultimately realize they can never experience love as it is truly meant to be. So they decide to end it all—by riding their sleigh (how very New England) into a sturdy elm.
Except they don’t die. Ethan is now crippled, and his beloved Mattie an invalid, so they are forced to live on the graces of Zeena, princess shrew. Which, really, is the icing on the cake of torment they’ll be eating for the remainder of their miserable, miserable lives.
Terrible, terrible book. You might’ve read it in school, though certainly not after. Because no one—no one—would read Ethan Frome if he or she didn’t have to. Except for Stephin Merritt, principle figure of Magnetic Fields and at least three other indie-pop bands in various stages of undeadness.
“I used to read it every year on my birthday,” says Merritt. “It’s 99 pages long. Perfect for birthday reading.”
On his birthday.
“As setting, it can’t be beat,” Merritt continues. “It expresses everything about how horrible New England is.”
I attempt to protest, because too much here is truly not enough. For the moral of Ethan Frome instructs that if you yearn for more—if you reach, as it were, for love, fulfillment, a better life—you will end up maimed and crippled (quite literally, if you own a sleigh) for the rest of your life.
“Yeah,” Merritt says, near-radiant with self-loathing, near-giddy with misanthropic glee. “For the rest of your life.”
Like a dowager’s perfume, the reputation of Stephin Merritt as interview subject precedes him. It has been suggested—in print and by more than one regretful questioner—that the “diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual” Merritt is “rude,” “grouchy,” “depressed,” “prickly,” and/or “nasty.” At least two critics— Chicago writer Jessica Hopper and The New Yorker‘s own Sasha Frere-Jones —have insinuated, if not outright declared, that Merritt has more than one racist bone in his body, based primarily on his lack of praise for black artists in magazine articles. (Frere-Jones, actually, settled for “cracker.”) Their assertions easily won the 2006 award for Most Insular Rock-Critic Pissing Contest, and Merritt, who declined all comment at the time, is naturally loath to revisit the topic now.
“Is the racist thing over?” I ask. “Done? Finished?”
“Overdone? It’s certainly overdone,” he replies, and grins a grinchy grin.
And yet Merritt is nearly as acclaimed for his songwriting acumen as condemned for his asocial demeanor; one Seattle critic recommended the now bicoastal melodist be given the MacArthur Fellowship (a/k/a “Genius Grant”), so great and prodigious is his songwriting skill. “Well, it’s no good saying it in print,” Merritt deadpans.
Yes, “deadpans.” Let it be known that “says” just doesn’t do the trick here. During an hour’s conversation over a croissant and green tea, Merritt occasionally “intones.” On a few rare occasions, he “asks.” But my God in heaven, the man’s deadpan skills are consummate—raising an eyebrow, looking askance, adopting a skeptical (if not outright suspicious) glare, and such. For instance, when I ask if a comfortable setting is necessary for good songwriting, Merritt volleys: “Are you making a pun?”(No, I was not.) I would no more antagonize a potentially churlish pop star than, say, taunt a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo. A moment of unease crawls across our table like a wandering waterbug. “A little awkwardness and discomfort is probably preferable,” he says, a response that seems to cover more than one question.
“I like to think that I don’t need inspiration,” he continues. “That what I need is time, which is difficult to come by, and a little notebook, a pen, and some suitable background music to blot out the music that is inevitably in my head or already around me. Like these fucking Christmas songs that they’re playing at Le Pain Quotidien, so annoyingly low you can’t quite tell what they are.” In case you missed it (like more than one regretful interviewer prior), somewhere inside Merritt’s luxurious self-loathing and misanthropic glee is one bone-dry sense of humor. Which is just one of the reasons his songs are so appreciated.
Yes, Merritt’s musical confections are rapturously revered. And conventional wisdom posits 69 Love Songs, Magnetic Fields’ attention-grabbing, critically adored, awesomely ambitious and multi-genred 1999 three-disc set, as his masterpiece. (Fear not: Acerbic, animalistic allegories like “Boa Constrictor,” “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off,” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” guard well against any assumptions of sentimentality brought on by the album’s appellation.) But even before that, Merritt wrote lyrics like, “I have a mandolin/I play it all night long/It makes me want to kill myself.”
On Distortion, the Fields’ eighth record (if you count 69 as one entity), Merritt’s outlook hasn’t improved, judging by such lines as “Sober, life is a prison” and “I have planned my grand attacks/I will stand behind their backs/With my brand-new battle ax.”
More than once, Merritt has avoided attempts to conjoin his lyrics with his life, and so I suggest that —in Magnetic Fields as well as his other projects, which include Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies—at least he is obviously open to songwriting as a thematic exercise or experiment. As evidence, I offer not only 69 Love Songs but its successor, 2004’s i, wherein all 14 songs begin with the ninth letter of the alphabet.
“It’s a fair assumption,” Merritt says, “but not really a fair extrapolation. It is more about the song titles that began with ‘I’ that were already in my trunk. I wrote three-quarters of them before deciding on that album title. I wrote very little of 69 Love Songs before deciding on the title, though. But they’re love songs, so it’s not an exercise. Most of my songs are love songs to begin with, so it wasn’t an exercise to write more. If I had ideas that weren’t love songs, I just didn’t complete those songs until later. Being constrained to write a love song is like being constrained to use a C-chord somewhere.”
And with Distortion, Merritt’s songs stay the same—at least in the writing. Witness a hatred so vital to “California Girls” that it serves as the chorus, an ample dose of holiday self-pity in “Mr. Mistletoe,” and even a postulant’s petition to perform as a prostitute and Playboy Bunny in “The Nun’s Litany.” But this time, Merritt’s output is dressed in the altogether appropriately wired wistfulness of grunge-via–Velvet Underground clothing. Which is a matter of style in more ways than one. “I don’t know that there are particular lyrical references to distortion or anything like that,” Merritt says. “That’s the whole point of it: taking a random sampling of songs and subjecting them all to the production style of Jesus & Mary Chain’s Psychocandy.”
(Well, not exactly random. Distortion had an earlier, eventually discarded linkage: “They were all on the album before I decided on that production style,” Merritt says, “because they all fit in with the previous concept for the album, which was abandoned in favor of this one. And since that concept is still usable, I don’t talk about what it is.” And he doesn’t even bother to deadpan about it.)
In any case, JAMC is a longtime Merritt favorite, a personal preference made public a long time ago. And yet he has caught none of the Reid brothers’ reunion shows: “I can’t go to rock concerts anymore.” The villain here is the singer’s self-diagnosed struggle with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes loud, shrill noises exceedingly unpleasant—like, say, the ever-present guitar feedback screeching through Distortion. The affliction compelled the album to be mixed “at low volumes,” Merritt notes. “And that’s why there are two other people doing the mixing as well.”
But maybe it was never about overwhelming the listener anyway. “When I saw the Jesus & Mary Chain twice in the late ’80s, they were not loud,” he recalls. “In fact, they were reasonably moderate in volume. I think that’s why they were able to get that sound, because the feedback was quite controlled, so they had just the perfect sound. Very British. It sounded just like the record, like any British band.”
But feedback, intentional or not, isn’t Merritt’s only occupational hazard. “We’re playing quite small venues—Town Hall is the largest we’re playing—in an effort to try to manage the volume level,” he notes of the Fields’ imminent tour. “From an audience, I find applause in a place larger than 35 people really quite awful.” Which, from a man whose songwriting saunters between self-loathing and misanthropy, is a response that covers more than one question.
Magnetic Fields play Town Hall February 21 through 24, the-townhall-nyc.org.