Stephin Merritt Comes Out—as Human

The reticent Magnetic Fields impresario returns to the jumbo-sized concept-album format he pioneered with 69 Love Songs, with a surprising new theme: himself.

Stephin Merritt

Nonesuch Records

What kind of sharer are you? Over-? Under-? Secret? When we meet new friends, acquaintances, or lovers, some people become instant confidantes. Others bide their time till they’re comfortable enough to spool out the sordid details of their pasts. A few, however, unload strictly on a need-to-know basis. Stephin Merritt, the governing consciousness of the long-standing musical unit the Magnetic Fields (among others), has always come across as one of that most reticent tribe. He is at ease singing about bedroom kinks; impetuous behavior; and even, on occasion, that special branch of perversity known as tenderness. But he generally telegraphs that he considers expressing his “true feelings,” in principle, nauseating. He tends to act dismayed, for instance, when he hears a couple had a Magnetic Fields song played at their wedding (as my ex and I once did).

All of which may seem incongruous for someone whose magnum opus to date was a 1999 triple album called (and consisting of) 69 Love Songs. But for Merritt, love seemed the least essential word in that title: What counted—and he clearly enjoys counting—was to generate more than five-dozen variations on a theme, in every genre, form, and up-ended cliché he could muster. If his contrivances happened to infect listeners with emotions, he couldn’t be held responsible. Merritt is at once a stubborn futurist and an unrepentant throwback. He seems incapable of recording an album without some kind of overarching concept, yet he is allergic to earnest artistic “statements.” His music is full of deliberate accidents, out-of-phase synthesizers, white noise, toy instruments, and drum machines. Yet it also overflows with finely wrought melodies and jack-in-the-box internal rhyme schemes (“I was a dyspeptic, epileptic skeptic”) more akin to the idioms of Tin Pan Alley or Broadway than to any kind of “rock.” And in those styles, listeners weren’t meant to be too curious about the wizard behind the curtain.

The earlier 1990s records had been more yearningly odd and exploratory, but the five Magnetic Fields albums that followed 69 Love Songs inevitably fell under its elongated shadow. Whatever their memorable sounds and songs, their conceits were comparatively thin, and so was the ratio of affecting compositions to disposable novelties. So it was a tantalizing surprise to learn that the first Magnetic Fields album in five years, being released this week, would be another marathon set, with the most improbable of Stephin Merritt themes: Stephin Merritt.

When Rolling Stone pressed him on it a few years ago, Merritt had trouble naming 15 autobiographical songs among the hundreds he’d recorded—and some of his choices seemed a stretch, so he might have been acting cagey. But now, on 50 Song Memoir, Merritt celebrates and/or bemoans reaching middle age—though arguably he was born that way—with one song for each year of his life, from his first birthday in 1966 to his 50th in 2015. More surprisingly still, it’s spectacular. Few tracks here can match 69 Love Songs peaks such as “Book of Love” or “Papa Was a Rodeo,” but few songs can anywhere, by anyone. 50 Song Memoir, however, has fewer dips and draggy bits than the later segments of 69 Love Songs. It has superior momentum in part thanks to its narrative pull: It’s driven by a Janus-headed mystery, of how Merritt’s peculiar sensibility evolved in the first place (the opener is called “Wonder Where I’m From”), and then whether his erratic route might somehow add up to any kind of contentment. I find it equally enjoyable backward or forward. It adapts less well to being shuffled.

It turns out that Merritt is a songwriter—maybe the only one?—who does his finest work in the more than two-hour anthology format. And that his cool-handed manner succeeds best in tandem with grand subjects, ones that bring their own heat. If nearly any other songwriter (say, Billy Joel) threatened to sing the story of his life from birth, you’d duck away to avoid falling pomposity. Merritt is more in danger of terminal archness when crooning about Victorian dolls or Dalmatians or some other bric-a-brac—best to give him something with heft to miniaturize. After love and life, perhaps he’ll have to follow up with 101 Death Songs.

The opening cycle, for instance, is about his dilemma as an introverted and constantly uprooted child with a single 1960s “bohemian” mom who stumbled through a long line of cults (“she could have been a Moonie, with similar results”) and “no-goodnik” boyfriends. But it’s dispatched with minimal self-pity, in wry sketches of wayward cats named Dionysus and sojourns in locations exotic (a zendo in Maui, a Jefferson Airplane concert) and banal (Syracuse, an ice-cream truck). In lieu of angsty teen coming-out songs, Merritt sings about learning to play the synthesizer and spending all night in dance clubs with his hair done up in “Rorschach blots.” The inference is clear enough.

As he did with the love song, Merritt handles the autobiographical song with lab gloves, as an object of study. He puts it through its paces, in first, second, or third person, from the anecdotal to the anthemic. There are Christian folk-mass and Irish-pub sing-alongs, dance-floor workouts, conga-line strutters (for the tune in which his mom threatens her misbehaving toddler with reincarnation as a cockroach, a prospect he finds enticing), performance-art pastiches, lush-but-sardonic folkie ballads, and plenty of New Romantic–style synth enchantments (the official sound of Merritt’s dream monarchy, as he sings in the 1980 entry, “London by Jetpack”). Sometimes the style suits the year, or the phase of Merritt’s life, as with the sweet Mister Rogers–esque lilt of the 1971 track about young Stephin discovering the power of his imagination, “I Think I’ll Make Another World.” As the timeline moves into the 1990s, though, most of it is what I can only call Magnetic Fields music. All mimicry has fallen away by the 1998 entry, the ravishing lament “Lovers’ Lies,” or Merritt’s elegant ode to New York City, for 2001 and thus for 9/11, “Have You Seen It in the Snow?” (The second, grislier meaning of “snow” in that ash-raining context is left to the hearer.)

Whatever the style, it comes filtered through Merritt’s array of distancing devices, both emotional and electronic. This impulse traces in part to the pop traditionalist in him. Through most of popular music history, autobiographical songwriting was as rare as public nudity. Which isn’t that outré anymore either. Today’s pop stars routinely leak which rivals or paramours are the targets of their latest numbers. Merritt has preferred to emulate the first half of the 20th century, when most songs were crafted to be performed or recorded by almost anyone. (Magnetic Fields albums often come with a roster of guest singers, though not this one.) The song, not the singer, was the star.

There were exceptions: One of the many things that made World War I–era vaudeville sensation Eva Tanguay so outrageous, as marquees boasted, was her “songs about herself,” such as “Tanguay Tangle” (about her hair), “Egotistical Eva,” and “If I Only Had a Regiment of Tanguays.” Old-time blues singers used first-person in broadly archetypal ways, but a few were more directly personal, as when Memphis Minnie sang about her own illness in “Meningitis Blues” in 1930. As Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor document in their 2007 book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, that was followed in 1931 by early country-music superstar Jimmie Rodgers releasing “T.B. Blues,” about the tuberculosis that would soon kill him, as well as a tall-tale version of his life story as a yodeling railroad brakeman on “Jimmie the Kid.”

For decades, though, few singers would pick up those cues. Woody Guthrie would sing about rambling across the country in hobo yards and work camps, and Hank Williams would bring an intimate realism to his lonesome yarns (as Billie Holiday would do in jazz). In the 1950s, Bo Diddley liked to drop his own name, and Chuck Berry wrote story-songs that often seemed firsthand. But the gates didn’t really swing open until Bob Dylan (particularly on 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan) and the Beatles (especially John Lennon, competing with Dylan on songs such as “Norwegian Wood”) made the singer-songwriter the new ideal. Then the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, and even Marvin Gaye (and Dylan again with Blood on the Tracks) installed the “confessional” song as the bruised 1970s’ lingua franca. The combination of baby-boom generational drama, the self-help ethos of the “me decade,” and the swelling of star culture made singing about yourself the opposite of the scandal it was for Eva Tanguay: It became the default, almost a prerequisite. Rap, with its foundations in “realness” and self-proclamation (“See, I am Wonder Mike, and I’m here to say hello”), hammered that reality principle in.

Merritt, however, is an irony-addicted caucasian gen X’er. He grew up with too many people around him “finding themselves” and turned to the hardline spiritual skepticism that comes up on several 50 Song Memoir tracks. Many songwriters of his vintage backed far away from explicit confession, and most such indie auteurs (Smog, Sebadoh, the Mountain Goats, Silver Jews, Destroyer) preferred to operate under band names (“bandonyms,” as I’ve dubbed them), not their own birth names, because being so-and-so the singer with a guitar/keyboard came to seem cheesy. Merritt has some long-running collaborators in and out of the Magnetic Fields, but the name also serves as camouflage. Like Merritt, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats for years loudly disavowed the biographical fallacy—the presumption that writers and singers must be soulfully chronicling their own lives. But as the confessional 1970s receded safely far away, Darnielle came around to explicit memoir, first with songs about youthful drug addiction and then notably on 2005’s The Sunset Tree, an album about his childhood abuse by his stepfather—which a couple of the songs about Merritt’s mother’s boyfriends on 50 Song Memoir call to mind.

The question is more complicated for Merritt, by dint of his sexuality. Not so long ago, to sing about queerness would have been confessional in the literal sense of admitting a crime. In his 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Merritt remarks that “gay songwriters in general write character songs because they’re not really in a position to have mainstream success writing in detail about their own lives.” (Taylor and Barker observe that, similarly, blind performers have almost never sung about their experiences as blind people.) But the commercial motivations are less powerful than the legacy of shame and persecution. As a performer, Merritt’s never exactly been closeted (from the first, he called his publishing company Gay and Loud), but his earlier songs tended to be artfully tricky with pronouns. And while his preference for disguise and evasion (“This is the band I wanted to be,” he sings at one point, “No names and faces, and no history/ Particularly, no pictures of me”) may derive from both generational reaction and his anti-social leanings (witness the seventh track, a childhood protest song against “Eye Contact”), it also connects to the lineage of concealment and code (drag, camp, polari) throughout queer history.

Merritt’s childhood was not an era of after-school Gay-Straight Alliance club meetings. While he doesn’t address it head-on, his struggles with self-hatred and identity are in here. It’s perhaps most explicit in the 1983 entry, “Foxx and I,” about his adolescent admiration for (and later meeting with) the new-wave electronic maestro John Foxx of Ultravox, in which Merritt reveals the lure of the synthesizer for him as an adolescent: “Anyone can change into a machine/ Girl or white, black or boy/ Dull or very strange, into a machine/ Come with me.” He would rather be a human transformer, a box of toggles and patches that reroute errant impulses into song.

This urge to escape himself is in play throughout Merritt’s work, with its clouds of dissonance both swaddling and obscuring his melodies, its surreal settings and characters, its genre and gender switches, its frequent sarcasm, even its prolific displays of technical prowess (I am a machine that generates love songs!) and its not-infrequent flirtations with suicide. What we witness in the course of 50 Song Memoir is the narrator’s slow reconciliation with himself, the process of coming out, finally, Pinocchio-like, as no more and no less than a person.

I’m only a handful of years younger than Merritt, so my judgment may be biased by how vivid 50 Song Memoir’s chronology is to me, from the idea of being holed up with “all the Isaac Asimov anybody could want” during “The Blizzard of ’78” to his 1985 adolescent plaint in “Why I Am Not a Teenager”: “You’re full of these stupid hormones/ And then they come out with AIDS.” He sings it tongue-in-cheek, but inevitably the shade of the pandemic lingers over the landscape of 50 Song Memoir from there forward. It’s in the chant on the 1990 song, “Dreaming in Tetris”—“All the young dudes of 25/ Caught diseases, few survive”—and by conspicuous omission in the 1992 entry “Weird Diseases,” about Merritt getting practically any conceivable ailment other than AIDS (“nearly fatal renal cysts; maybe Asperger’s, if that exists”). And it resurfaces near the end, when Merritt sings about “all my old lovers, folks I used to know/ and those I still care for who died long ago.” There is an undercurrent, in the last half of 50 Song Memoir, of Merritt’s mild surprise at his continued existence, whether a happy one or not. Like any late 20th-century and early 21st-century chronicle of gay male life, it is to some extent also a survivor’s story.

And it concludes with two songs that I can hardly think of without crying, as they find Merritt having grown into another sort of sharer. The song with the line about “folks I used to know” is the gentle “’I Wish I Had Pictures.” It reflects wistfully on the frailty of memory, regretting that Merritt has only shaky recollection and his art with which to show a fresh loved one all the days of his past. It at once acknowledges the imperfections and errors that can’t help but riddle a project like this and also gives the album a sotto voce dedication, a purpose deeper than just the strenuous artistic challenge.

It’s the natural end to the album. But Merritt has one more thing to add, as a coda—the droll, salsa-swinging group-sing, “Somebody’s Fetish,” which insouciantly toasts the variety of human desires, in which everybody is the right fantasy peg for somebody’s fantasy hole (or vice versa). Even, it transpires, Stephin Merritt. And here he pauses the bop-de-bop and (mostly) the jokes, for two slower, rolling bridges of sighs: “And I, even I, with my wildebeest’s face,” he sings, in ascending spirals, “with my eccentricities, and my freedom from grace/ Even for me has Cupid found a place … at last!” And then again, imbued with gratitude:

And I, who have wandered alone for so long,
On my own little island, just like King Kong,
Here at the end, I have written a song—for you.

That you may be his lover, the man for whom he’s proved meat, not poison. But it also must be the listener. Since this is Stephin Merritt, it can only be accidentally on purpose that this album all about “I” gives its literal final word to “you.” It could be a healthy, Martin Buber–like attainment of other-directedness. It may be a final winking note of dubiousness about all this first-person nonsense. It’s probably both, because even when a singer sings about himself, he does it for an audience, for the sake of the show, whether for love or for money, for lust or enlightenment or the Lord. That’s the arrangement and always has been. It’s a tad vampiric when we demand more, from an artist who’s a stranger to us, more than we would ask even from a friend—more blood, more dirt, more truth. But we are lucky little vampires, because, sometimes, we get it.