How I Learned to Stop Hating Stephin Merritt and Love the Magnetic Fields

Even if he is an asshole.

Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt doesn't have much to say about parallels between his bleak lyrics and his own life. "My songs tend to come from experiences of other peoples' lyrics, and literature and cinema and theater," he tells me in a recent phone interview, and then adds, beguilingly: "I'm rarely describing my own experience in a novel way that wouldn't apply to someone else's experience." He has also declined to comment on the admittedly quite silly debate over whether or not he's a racist, which has been alleged (more or less) by The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones and critic Jessica Hopper in recent years. Frere-Jones cited Merritt's perceived lack of adulation for black artists, while Hopper decried his admiration for the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," from the 1946 Disney film Song of the South. Merritt is more than willing to weigh in on the issue of whether or not he's a jerk, however. "No one who is not an interviewer has ever called me an asshole," he told The New York Observer in October of 2006, around the time he released a set of songs for the audio versions of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books, performed under the auspices of one of his side projects, the Gothic Archies. "People regularly tell me how nice I am." Well, then, let it be known—this interviewer thinks he's an asshole. Even taking into account that he's got a hearing disorder, he often pauses for a ridiculously long time before he answers your questions, seems to resent digressions in the conversation, and, when he finally gets around to saying something, answers queries obnoxiously literally. Sample exchange: Q: How has the tour been going so far? A: I don't really know. When we play, I can't hear anything. I have no monitors. In order not to overwhelm my ears, my left ear, I don't get any monitors. So I don't know what anybody else is hearing. It's pretty much impossible for me to evaluate the shows. They were well received, that's all I can say. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to hate the guy, since his music is about as close to perfect as indie pop gets. Like his past two albums with the Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs and i—in which all the songs started with that vowel—the recently released Distortion again employs gimmicks: (1) Nearly all of its instruments are drenched in feedback. (2) Each song is almost exactly three minutes long. (3) As Merritt has explained, it was created to "sound more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain"—specifically their album Psychocandy. Yet despite donning musical straitjacket atop musical straitjacket, Distortion comes off effortlessly. Beneath its cloudy veneer, the album is almost pure bliss, a combination of Merritt's trademark dour sentiments and instantly hummable melodies. Fusing girl-group pop with surf and alt-rock, its songs are easy, nasty, charming, and substantive all at the same time. "There's a lot of sounds on it that people would normally find annoying, but there's so many of them that they sort of mesh together in a wallpaper fashion," Merritt says, adding that his mother was initially "quite shocked" and didn't like it, although she eventually came around. Most people probably won't have such a steep appreciation curve, however. The CD's standout track, "California Girls"—which, like many songs on the album, employs the vocals of 69 Love Songs contributor Shirley Simms—serves as both a response and an homage to the Beach Boys track of the same name, the deceptively gentle tune masking a bitter tirade against SoCal babes: "Tan and blonde and seventeen/Eating nonfood keeps them mean/But they're young forever...I hate California girls." Merritt is obviously plenty smaht, and if he's depressed, he certainly doesn't want a medal for it. "It's not really clear to me where suffering ends and experience begins," he says. "It's just kind of meaningless. Existence is suffering—what are you going to do about it? My mother is a Buddhist. I don't have illusions about the cessation of suffering." And then, moments later: "But why are we talking about this? I think we've digressed. Let's talk about me. Me, me, me, and my new record." music@seattleweekly.com

 
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