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The Magnetic Fields
an interview with Stephen Merritt by Martin Williams
My heart thinks it has so much to say, but I try to keep it quiet. I am continually beset by the fear that I may have expressed only a sigh when I thought I was stating a truth.
Like babies in the anal stage, we listen to love songs because we like to spend quality time with our own shit. It's not depth or discernment that they offer, and there certainly isn't much insight contained in your average pop couplet. "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah." We're on a hiding to nothing if we think that anything of substance can be gleaned about Love from these nuggets. "I say a little prayer for you." Love songs, damn them, just aren't useful like that. "I get no kick from champagne." Fact is the wistful melancholy of your average love song is as narcissistic as love itself.
It was with a heavy dose of such fatalism that Stephin Merritt, the creative core of New York's Magnetic Fields, embarked on his whopping, magnum opus triple CD-cum-doorstop 69 Love Songs.
I can't think of any insights that I've learned from songs, he offers in his carefully considered baritone mumble
. And I had nothing qualitatively new to say, hence the idea of saying something quantatively new.
Having persistently hammered away at a single theme- like a throwback to the post-war OuLiPo writers, like Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, who sought shape and reason for their work in formal restrictions (Perec testing the limits with his novel A Void, written entirely without the letter E)- 69 Love Songs is nothing if not a testament to Merritt's own manic creativity. Over the nigh-on three hour duration of the album, Merritt dazzles with an almost pathological number of variations on his chosen theme, scrutinising with a meticulousness that borders on the autistic. As he acknowledges himself,
it seems like this album is by someone with an obsessive compulsive disorder. In fact, if someone wanted to commit me, all the evidence that they would need would be 69 Love Songs.
In science as in love, too much concentration on technique can often
lead to impotence.
We're sat on the bank of the Regent's Canal and, what with Stephin's prodigious cigarette consumption, his burgeoning interest in the frequent kitsch canal barges that crawl past, and his own...endearingly...laboured...way...of...talking, our encounter isn't exactly free-flowing banter. When he does talk it's in a deadpan, mordant baritone that I imagine capable of slaughtering adversaries with a barbed comment and a withering look. Listening back to the tape, his voice has a playful wit to it that is belied in person by his static character. As guarded and sardonic as he seems, he conveys the impression of someone for whom public displays of sincerity are a last resort. With this in mind, I ask him if the material on 69 Love Songs was in part borne out of personal experience.
Most love songs are so short that the question is moot, because if I say, 'I love you,' do I mean me? 'La la la, I love you,' it's not that they're about me or not about me.
Good answer. Certainly, despite the potentially revealing subject matter the array of songs come across, for the most part, as formal exercises, rather than straight-from-the-heart confessional outpourings. It's only when Merritt's arch persona- occasionally as distanced from what he is singing about as if he has quote marks around the lyrics- shatters the heartfelt façade that love songs demand, that his experiment stumbles a little. Mostly though, as with the songs Love is Like a Bottle of Gin or Acoustic Guitar or Busby Berkeley Dreams or countless others, his lack of preciousness over his material blends with his wounded humour and just enough self-revelation to keep things compelling. Not to mention Merritt's winning way with a melody. His greedy gaze lights upon jazz, punk, New Wave, folk, country, a cappella, torch song, indie rock and Broadway standard, the whole thing reels off like an extended whistle-stop tour of love song conventions. But Merritt isn't happy for the album's stylistic tourism to be taken as pastiche.
Because of Love is Like Jazz, I've been accused of hating jazz. I don't see any of them as pastiches, I meant them to be serious examples of whatever genres they're in.
Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
When Merritt approached the Magnetic Fields' US label Merge and declared his original intention of releasing an album consisting of 100 love songs, their reaction was one of controlled skepticism.
Well, Merge didn't believe me, no-one believed me, so they thought they were humouring me by agreeing to do 69 songs. I actually thought it was going to be a 2CD set, but I didn't like how it was going with very short songs, so I lengthened the songs.
Retreating to his favourite watering holes, Merritt applied himself full time to the songwriting.
It's an exaggeration of my normal method of writing. I don't usually get to sit around all day and all night though. I cleared my schedule for writing songs.
There's a workmanlike lack of pretention in the way Stephin talks about the writing of the album, like he's living proof of the perspiration over inspiration true-ism. It's in his nature and his intentions for the project that any mystique about Art stemming from uncontrolled lightening bolts of inspiration are scotched in favour of application or deliberation.
Yeah, I don't know why sitting down to produce it would detract from inspiration. I don't really know what inspiration is other than feeling like working, and I like working so I usually feel like working.
With such outlandish intentions, the expected record company reaction might be to cajole and impress upon the hapless musician the foolishness of such an unwieldy project, but it seems that the good folks at Merge were receptive to Stephin's hair-brained scheme. With their fingers crossed behind their backs at least. But for Merritt the idea was already fait accompli:
I have the notebook that I wrote this idea into, and I've actually written in the notebook, 'I vow to do this.'
If Merritt was determined to see the project through from the outset, how long did it take Merge to take him just as seriously?
About two-thirds of the way through it became clear that if I had 49 songs I was probably going to have 69.
Do you want to know how great my love is? Count the waves.
69 Love Songs isn't just a case of sloppy editing or a careless, throw-it-all-in attitude. Rather it's a goal in itself, a self-validating exercise, an epic destination. Like when a word or phrase is repeated again and again until its own sound becomes strange. Did Stephin hope for any revelations to spring from his own repetition?
The absurd number of multiple perspectives on the same topic, albeit a big topic, makes me think of Warhol's repetitions of Marilyn and money, but there's also [the Wallace Stevens poem] Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and [Blake's] The Pebble and the Clod. There's literary depth and then there's simple repetition and I'm avoiding saying which one I'm doing and I don't really know which one I'm doing and I'm not sure the question is answerable. It just reveals the general vacuity of the love song.
It might seem ironic that such an expert practitioner in the Love Song would state so blatantly that the material he works with is actually quite vacuous. Is this a clue to some contempt for his own fixation?
Oh no, like haiku they suggest meaning rather than having meaning, and the meaning of the lyrics is also directly undermined by the music. I'm just making a statement that love songs can be manufactured in bulk, it gives the album a reason to exist.
As admirable and audacious as Merritt's formal achievement is, it doesn't escape the notion that if the song snippets and half-formed ideas that pad out this megalith (of which, among 69 songs, there are inevitably a few) had been boiled away he could have been left with one long single album of incredible songs. But something so mundane doesn't have the panache of 69 Love Songs; it would ultimately be just another album and, as Stephin Merritt says
, "what fun would that be?"
CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000