The Magnetic Fields have roughly the cultural and commercial footprint of an arthouse cinema hit. But a few weeks ago, Stephin Merritt — the group’s songwriter and chief creative officer —found himself staring straight into the ruddy, swollen face of his blockbuster competition.
“I was sitting in a bar, listening to thumping disco music, trying to write songs,” says Merritt from his home in Los Angeles, 10 days before the start of his band’s tour, which opens tonight at Lisner Auditorium. (Drinking in a loud bar is his customary songwriting environment, yes.) “Suddenly there was this television show with the sound on — usually it’s off. And the music, even when they were praising it, was so terrible it was like watching a car accident from different angles.”
Confirmed, then: The Magnetic Fields Guy? Not a fan of American Idol.
What is he a fan of? Irving Berlin. Judy Collins. And of swatting down the stubbornly pervasive idea that songs are primarily the product of something more mysterious than talent and work.
“There’s this book called Songwriters on Songwriting. I think the interviewer must have been asking leading questions, because maybe two-thirds of the people in the book say they feel their songs are basically written by God,” he says. “I just literally cannot believe that they really think this. I tend to write songs while I’m tipsy-to-drunk. But I still don’t feel like they’re written by some supernatural entity.”
Well, God is in the details, goes the saying. And Merritt’s songs — most famously made manifest by the Magnetic Fields, though he writes for several other groups (“I don’t know what the Magnetic Fields is, but the 6ths is like a gossip column, the Gothic Archies is like a horror movie, and Future Bible Heroes is science fiction”) and the musical theater, too — are often so ineluctably tuneful as to feel inevitable, despite their meticulous craft.
But art also thrives on restriction, and Merritt gives himself lots of those.
Witness 69 Love Songs, the sprawling 1999 set that gave us exactly seventy-minus-one variations on the meme, earning Merritt favorable comparisons to Cole Porter. Or i, a 2004 set of songs beginning with that letter. In 2008, Distortion lived up to its name by drenching its contents in a Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired haze of feedback. (Released 17 years after the Magnetic Fields’ now-all-but unrecognizable debut, Distortion was their first to crack the Billboard Top 100.)
Merritt says he likes the premise-as-title trick because it shuts down a potential avenue of criticism. “My mother, famously, hated Distortion, at least the first few times she heard it. But she couldn’t say, ‘That’s too distorted.’”
Whether he’s kidding about that or not, his new album’s moniker is decidedly more beguiling: Realism.
Sonically, it’s the, er, photo-negative of Distortion, featuring the same number of songs, but using only acoustic instrumentation. (Well, save for a subtle electric guitar part Merritt recorded in 1986 and kept in a drawer until he found a home for it on the “The Dada Polka.”) He toyed with the idea of calling the two albums True and False, but he couldn’t decide which should be which. As for why the cover of Distortion bears a mens’ room sign, while Realism has a ladies’ room icon, Merritt declines to elucidate.
Realism is, to his way of thinking, an orchestral folk opus in the vein of Collins’s two mid-60s albums with arranger-producer Joshua Rifkin, In My Life and Wildflowers. Though it was inspired by the genre and the era through which confessionalism began to invade pop music, to infer that the Realism songs are any more autobiographical than Merritt’s others would be to err. “I prefer not to tell the listener what to feel, let alone what I feel,” he says.
Asked to cite a song he wishes he’s written, he names Berlin’s “White Christmas” — not because it’s a sterling specimen of songwriting genius after whom Merritt named his Chihuahua, but because it’s the top seller of all time. “It’s a good song, as Christmas songs go,” Merritt says. “In L.A. and New York, even, I tend to feel a bit sentimental about, not Christmas — I don’t like Christmas — but about the snow, from when I was a child in Vermont and upstate New York. I totally identify with him romanticizing the snow. ”
The group plans not to repeat any of the setlist from its prior Lisner concert (Oct. 2008) save for one. (Merritt declines to name it, though maybe there isn’t a T-O-N, Baby, of suspense on that front.) “Lacking a rhythm section, we have to be extra perky and varied,” he says. “No one’s allowed to fall asleep. Except for when we play ‘From a Sinking Boat,’” a drowning sailor’s mournful farewell to his love. Merritt recorded it in his bathroom.
Besides those earwormy melodies, Merritt’s songs are also notable as the delivery system for a humor blacker than the finish of a Steinway grand piano. He’s bitter. He’s funny. He understands the idiom of the pop song on a molecular level. And he’s accustomed to publicly eviscerating music he dislikes, having worked as a critic for Time Out New York.
This, America, sounds like the resume of an ideal replacement for departing Idol judge Simon Cowell.
“Oh, no,” Merritt demurs. “I could never be that mean to people at auditions.” Remembering himself, he clarifies: “What a terrible character he’s playing. It’s obviously not his real personality.”
The Magnetic Fields perform tonight at Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H Sts. NW, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 at the box office, or call (301) 808-6900.
A version of this story appears in today’s Examiner.