Stephin Merritt, cup of hot tea in hand, stands on the grounds of the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, Calif., a short drive east from his Los Feliz residence. Despite the perennial hangdog expression Merritt wears like a warning, he looks—God forbid—content in these bucolic surroundings.
He spends part of his year in L.A. now, and the Huntington is a place that fills him with joy and inspiration. “I’m a member here,” he says. “My mother likes this place. So do I.”
The Magnetic Fields frontman is unassuming, wearing a wool cap and scuffy slip-on moccasins, a notebook sticking out of his back pocket. As we scan the rare-manuscripts library, which contains a Gutenberg Bible and an awe-inspiring copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, we discuss what writers he’s into. As a younger man, Merritt aspired to be Basho, the great Japanese haiku poet. “I admire that perfection, but of course perfection in art implies an absence of interesting flaws. You can never quite get to that point, it seems.” And how about Dylan? “Well, I’d rather be compared to Dylan than Cole Porter, because that means people don’t think I write clever list songs [like Porter’s “You’re the Top”]. Although Dylan wrote clever list songs, too.”
It’s always a treat to greet a new Magnetic Fields album into your life, because it means that Merritt will hit you with some new observations about relationships, observations you might prefer to keep buried. Few other musicians write with as much savage wit about the vagaries of relationships. Witness, for example, this couplet from the new Magnetic Fields project, Distortion: “Sober, nobody wants you / Shitfaced, they’re all undressing.” Then he breaks your heart with, “Through time and tomb / And Tim and Tom / Through pro and con / And quid pro quo, and qualm / Through tidal wave and bomb / darling, I will love you…”
Maybe the kids made too much fun of Merritt’s baritone voice during his itinerant childhood, when the future indie hero bopped from one Northeastern city to the next. Maybe the hippie-chick mom who raised him didn’t pay enough attention. Maybe he’s been unlucky in love. These are all ?ne theories, but Merritt actually writes those dyspeptic and mordantly witty songs because he likes Stephen Sondheim, a lyricist who has mastered the romantic ambivalence Merritt strives for in his own work. Magnetic Fields songs are about what happens when smart and self-conscious people get tangled up in black and blue—and about the resulting lacerations of the heart.
There are times in Stephin Merritt’s life when rock plays a subservient role, at best. Years go by, and all he’ll listen to are showtunes and old folk music. He’s an aesthete with hearing loss, a man who might be writing poetry chapbooks if it paid the mortgage on his New York apartment. This seventh Fields record is a provocation to the fans who swooned over the baroque arrangements on albums like i (2004) and the epic masterpiece 69 Love Songs (1999). As on previous Magnetic Fields records, Merritt set out with a simple yet insane objective. For 69 Love Songs, it was to record all those songs in one year (he missed it by two weeks). For i, he made every single song start with that letter. For Distortion, the goal was: Everything that can feed back must feed back, at all times.
Is it rock? The best kind: noisy, strati?ed with subtext, pretty and ugly. Excavate the layers of murk and reverb, and you’ve got some of the sweetest songs about self-hatred that Merritt has ever penned. Here’s a representative singalong from “Too Drunk to Dream”: “I gotta get too drunk to dream / ’cause dreaming only makes me blue.” Tippling cuckolds of the world could use this song as a rallying cry.
But where do these moods come from? “I read a lot books and I see a lot of movies, but I’m not sure any of that gets into my music,” Merritt says as he scans some anti-slavery pamphlets on display behind glass. “I’m not sure if I’m an optimist or a pessimist—I kind of balance between the two. But I think it’s important not to let pessimism seep into your life, because it becomes a self-ful?lling prophecy.”
Better to sublimate your pessimism in the art—and the murk—so it doesn’t immolate you in life. Merritt, despite his dour reputation, savors life. He thinks long and hard, closely examines the evidence, and passes judgment only when he’s ready to do so. This thoughtfulness can pass for inscrutability, but he’s just trying to be polite.
He’s got something on his mind at the moment, though, and it has to do with the lack of ambition in rock ’n’ roll circa now. When he set out to make Distortion, it was with every love gun blazing, every synapse ?ring. The man who conceived 69 Love Songs isn’t in the mood for half-measures. For someone as proli?c as Merritt, the work is the result of careful craft. “What I don’t understand is why more artists can’t hold themselves to higher standards,” he says. “Why can’t they just ?gure out counter melodies? What’s so hard?” Merritt refers to himself as a man who “prefers to write old-style songs, but with 1971 arrangements.”
The plan for Distortion was to make the record quickly, per the request of the band’s label, Nonesuch. “I said, sure, no problem,” Merrit says, “and then it took a year.” But why not make a record as well-crafted, say, as the bronze bust of Lord Byron that looks at us with a perfervid intensity?
“I just don’t understand why more musicians don’t pay closer attention to arrangements,” Merritt says. He cites Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy—a record encrusted in sonic rubble but never buried so deep as to camou?age the great songs—as an in?uence on his new record. On Distortion, Merritt cloaked everything except the bass in feedback, and then recorded vocals over the top, like a raven scanning the detritus of a junkyard and ?nding gold. The noise is a metaphor of sorts—it’s the act of trying to emerge from the emotional miasma and never quite getting out.
Distortion can be interpreted as a song cycle. Think of it as the long waiting period when two well-intentioned lovers think they might make it work, only to discover that they’re deluded. These songs deal with the self-recrimination, and Merritt would like you to listen to Distortion front to back—no scrambling the mood with an iPod song shufle. “Murk is sort of a value judgment, a way to imply that you’re seeking clarity and not ?nding it,” he says. But as Basho said, “every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”