Friday, March 30, 2012

This is an irony-free zone

Posted By on 03.30.12 at 03:23 PM

Why the long face?
Stephin Merritt, a short, gay, laconic, and exceedingly witty person, is the lyricist for the Magnetic Fields (about whom this is the second Bleader post this week, sorry), in addition to other projects like the 6ths and the Gothic Archies. He writes impeccably and owns a chihuahua named for Irving Berlin. I've encountered people who think of Merritt's lyrics as "ironic," but I am here to submit that that's not the case. They have a weird earnestness, which I think is what makes them so effective. You just have to separate it out from the aggressively hilarious, like "You Must Be Out of Your Mind," from the 2010 album Realism, with its lines "I want you crawling back to me / Down on your knees, yeah / Like an appendectomy / Sans anesthesia." There's some funny shit on the new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, too; see for instance “Your Girlfriend’s Face.”

I think that sincerity, beneath and beside the veneer, is Merritt's stock-in-trade. He writes about love—mostly, almost exclusively—as an absurd and doomed pursuit. He wrote 69 love songs for an album called 69 Love Songs, a three-volume epic that remains a career peak for the band. When I saw them the other night, they played "Busby Berkeley Dreams," which is on the third volume. It opens with a lovely little couplet: "I should have forgotten you long ago / But you're in every song I know." And on and on. Sure, there's the twee and the strictly conceptual ("Experimental Music Love," for instance). But consider a song like "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin": "It costs a lot more than it's worth / And yet there is no substitute." Who can argue with it?

I wrote the other day of how much I liked "Plant White Roses," which the Magnetic Fields sang on Monday. It was a pleasure watching them perform such a simple country song, though it had been run through the old genre-metareference machine; I loved the lyrics "You're all I need / But you need more than country songs / You need to be getting along." Some other favorite lines come from "100,000 Fireflies," which is on the band's early album Distant Plastic Trees, and they straddle the divide between goofy and almost unbearably tender. They're the last in the song:

You won't be happy with me, but give me one more chance
You won't be happy anyway

Why do we still live here, in this repulsive town?
All our friends are in New York

Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things?
We should be whispering all the time

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