It's hard to imagine an adolescent Stephen Merritt. The slight, acerbic songwriting genius who leads the Magnetic Fields seems, like W.C. Fields, to have utterly avoided the indignity of childhood. As author of some of the most acidic rock criticism to reach print, Merritt is known as something of a misanthrope. But his codger's personality houses a hopeful heart, which is the subject of his band's new release, 69 Love Songs. And indeed, Merritt -- the writer of these songs (among the most witty and perceptive of the post-punk era) -- was once a child.
"When I was roughly 12," Merritt recalls, "I didn't say 'uhm' at all. I would leave long holes in sentences and people would interrupt me. It drove my mother crazy, so she taught me to say 'uhm.'" When a 12-year-old has such strict control over his sentences, what choice does he have but to become a writer? And in Merritt's case, he has become the finest songwriter since the demise of Tin Pan Alley. 69 Love Songs -- the three-volume set of ditties, airs, waltzes, and ukulele rockers penned by Merritt and performed by the Magnetic Fields -- can be fittingly described by the old phrase, "They don't make 'em like that anymore."
The songs, which range from the arch "Fido Your Leash Is Too Long" ("You go where you don't belong/You've been digging in the rubble/Getting bitches in trouble/Fido your leash is too long") to the louche "Love Is Like Jazz" ("You make it up as you go along/And you act as if you really know the song") form an entire back catalog of emotions relating to the well-worn topic of l'amour fou.
Amazingly, Merritt doesn't view 69 Love Songs as his magnum opus. "Everything I write turns into a song. I was writing about three songs a day for a few months," he says with a ho-hum sigh. Most songwriters would give their right eye to be able to write three songs as good as Merritt's in a lifetime. Frequently touted as "the new Cole Porter," Merritt chafes at the comparison. "I'd rather be compared to Irving Berlin." But in some ways, the Porter analogy is apropos. Other "new Cole Porters" like Momus and Rufus Wainwright write elegant music with carefully-worded lyrics, but both are storytellers at heart. Merritt's particular talent, like Porter's, is for clever rhymes and tidy arrangements. He shares Porter's genius for turning awkward turns of phrase into thrillingly succinct lyrics. Porter observed, "I get no kick from champagne/Pure alcohol doesn't thrill me at all/But I get a kick out of you." The champagne metaphor in Merritt's work goes in the opposite direction: "I'm a hopeless romantic/You're a terrible flirt/Cool and unfazed, you're always amazed/When someone gets hurt.../Love can kill people, can't it?/Well it still may kill me/Each drop of rain/Is a glass of champagne/ It's sweet and it's free."
When the Magnetic Fields saunter on stage at the Crocodile on Tuesday, there will no doubt be ample opportunity to witness Merritt's noted prickliness; but be prepared to be won over by utterly charming songs, and the deft and wondrous players who share the stage. Cellist Sam Davol, guitarist John Woo, and drummer/pianist Claudia Gonson are the perfect musical foils for Merritt's deadpan manner. But even better, they give each song precisely the sedate or giddy or willful tone it requires. It is the other members who make the Magnetic Fields the strongest and surest among Merritt's bands, which include the 6ths, the Future Bible Heroes, and the Gothic Archies.
Stranger readers will surely recall Everett True's over-the-top praise for last summer's Magnetic Fields shows. Another Northwest notable to fall under the band's sway is K Records owner Calvin Johnson, who sent Merritt a cache of Pendleton shirts after the singer praised Johnson's sartorial style at an Olympia show. "He found a lot of them in a thrift store, apparently," says Merritt. "So he sent me the small ones. I dyed them all brown, though. Blue makes me look like a Polish solidarity worker."