Published Jan 01, 2006The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt has always expressed his disdain for narcissistic singer/songwriters. After all, he's a professional, not a confessional. In his new song "Is This What They Used to Call Love," he sings how "this outpouring of emotion/ is as boring as an ocean." "I think I have enough detachment from my own emotions that I'm perfectly capable of being bored by them," says the dry and deadpan Merritt. "And I don't think I'm unique in that way."
In person, Merritt is audibly bored. He will, however, talk about Chinese opera, Edward Gorey and minor key disco songs with slightly more enthusiasm than his usual state of dry disinterest in queries about the Magnetic Fields. That is, when he's not dodging questions by claiming that certain songs were inspired by a potential musical adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Maybe he's not kidding about that last bit. After all, in the five years since the last Magnetic Fields album the 3CD opus 69 Love Songs Merritt has released two full-lengths with his other songwriting vehicles the 6ths and the Future Bible Heroes, scored two films (Pieces of April, Eban and Charley), written 13 songs to accompany the audio books for the Lemony Snicket children's series, and even composed two Chinese operas (The Orphan of Zhao, Peach Blossom Fan). It seems like the guy rarely writes a song just for the hell of it.
"I put so many arbitrary constraints on my own work, that it doesn't matter if I'm putting them there or someone else is," he says. "That's how I like to work. Otherwise, I look at a blank page and have no idea what I'm going to put on it."
His career-defining concept album was 69 Love Songs. Lyrically, it was a bold move to toy with every love song cliché ever written while, as a minor by-product, writing an entire new canon of love songs that put every contemporary songwriter to shame. It was a ridiculously ambitious project that deservedly launched the Magnetic Fields into geek mythology, wedding playlists and mix tape heaven, even selling 130,000 copies along the way.
The new album, i, is "the loosest possible concept album," says Merritt. "The title is in lower case, which makes the letter i' and not the word I.' Because the songs are in alphabetical order, the first half of them begin with the word I' as well. I had not decided on a lyrical concept but figured I'll write it that way and it will comment on itself if it happens to do so."
Musically, the new album is as stylistically consistent as 69 Love Songs was eclectic; for Merritt, musical constraints define i's true concept. "I wanted to write over a ridiculous number of genres, so I thought I would tie the record together through the production and performance style," he explains. "I tried to use the same instruments: ukulele, banjo, marimba, piano, percussion, and cello. There are no synthesizers. I wanted to use almost no reverb, and have only the four-piece band play on it. I also pitched all the keys as high as possible and then one step down, and sang with no affect other than that I was singing high letting the high keys dictate the affect."
When it comes time to put pen to paper, Merritt's unusual working discipline hasn't changed in 15 years. "I don't know that I would call it a discipline," he argues. "I sit in gay bars drinking Courvoisier and staring into space."