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[whitespace] Stephin Merritt The Perfect Date: Stephin Merritt of Future Bible Heroes writes cutting love lyrics.


Lonely And Loving It

Stephin Merritt resurrects the old-fashioned love song with a dry wit

By Michelle Goldberg

THE WORD GENIUS is scandalously overused and has thus been bled of much of its meaning, but there's simply no other term for the thrilling, faith-restoring Stephin Merritt. He's a master of songwriting, a craft that, aside from Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, Aimee Mann and a few others, has fallen into hideous decline as of late.

The most groundbreaking music these days shuns narrative in favor of rhythm and texture, especially in the world of electronic dance. So, it is particularly thrilling to listen to Merritt bring his Cole Porter sensibility to confectionery synth melodies and digital beats on I'm Lonely (And I Love It) (Merge Records), the new five-song EP from the Future Bible Heroes, one of his many bands.

Some of the record's pleasures may be nostalgic. It speaks especially to those of us who grew up with New Order, Yaz and early Depeche Mode like Speak and Spell. Nevertheless, its addictive builds and coy, cutting lyrics are timeless.

Though Merritt's projects also include the Gothic Archies and the 6ths, he's best known for his band the Magnetic Fields, a group that became legendary for last year's three-disc opus, 69 Love Songs. The collection offered just what its title indicated: 69 songs about love, a startling majority of which were jewels, the rough stuff of romance forged into gleaming perfection by Merritt's sly humor, stylistic eclecticism and deliriously catchy tunes.

Christopher Ewen and Claudia Gonson, Merritt's Future Bible Heroes bandmates, both contributed to 69 Love Songs and other Magnetic Fields recordings, and yet the band has a distinct sound, with far more emphasis on dance beats and electronic orchestration than any of Merritt's other projects.

Ewen, formerly of the '80s synth pop band Figures on a Beach, creates rock-candy hooks and rhythms that fizz and pop. His insanely hummable, effervescent electronic music superbly sets off Merritt's jaded dry heartbreak.

The new EP is the third Future Bible Heroes release--to go with a 1997 album, Memories of Love, and an EP from the same year called Lonely Days. I'm Lonely (And I Love It) isn't a great departure from either one, which is a good thing, since what one really wants from any Merritt record is simply more of what he does best.

THE WITTY LOVE SONG, Merritt's specialty, is itself becoming a lost art. Between the curdling pathos of billboard-topping banshee Celine Dion, the tinny vanilla mawkishness of Britney, Mandy and the rest of the teen moppets, and the caustic pessimism of the indie and hip-hop worlds, romance has been hammered flat.

We're left with a matching set of formulas: love as empyreal benediction or as cruel, empty joke. Merritt transcends both tropes to probe the squishy, raw territory of real feeling. At the same time, he's a pop sophisticate, employing a repertoire of musical conventions to get at the shards of truth that lie beneath cliches.

On 69 Love Songs' sublime "Busby Berkeley Dreams," for example, the elegant, bathetic piano melody conjures swirling, dipping dancers, but Merritt's choked singing captures the sad reality behind cinematic fantasy: "Whining and pining is wrong and so/On and so forth, of course, of course/But, no, you can't have a divorce/I haven't seen you in ages/But it's not as bleak as it seems/We still dance on whirling stages/In my Busby Berkeley dreams."

Love is inextricably entwined with its artistic idealization, and Merritt gets at the heart of both, illuminating both the consolations and delusions we find in our endless images of romance.

On I'm Lonely (And I Love It), he continues to mine the wry truth from romantic archetypes, keeping sentimentality and cynicism in exquisite balance. The disc delivers right from the opening title track, a bitter but soaring breakup anthem. Ewen's bubbling, triumphant music is pure spun sugar, working in perfect contrast to the acid in Merritt's low deadpan drawl.

"I'm as lonely as Mount Everest and probably as high/It's time to buy the records you would never let me buy/It's time to try the million things you never let me try/I can almost laugh at all the times you made me cry," he sings defiantly. It's as if Quentin Crisp had penned lyrics for Erasure.

The track that follows, "My Blue Hawaii," is a bit of a throwaway, a takeoff on tropical-island kitsch with a lascivious, volcanic groove. It's impeccably crafted, of course, but lounge lizard lyrics are such an easy target that parodying them is pointless. "Pineapples, guavas, mangoes/Martin Denny playing tangos," Merritt rhymes. It's cute, but not much more.

Still, the remaining three songs are so fabulous that any disappointment is quickly forgotten. The sultry, echoing "Café Hong Kong," sung by Claudia Gonson, is wartime noir recalling old films like Singapore and Across the Pacific. "Dear Joe, I had to use your handkerchief for a tourniquet," Gonson sings over a spooky, cavernous soundscape redolent of bombed-out buildings. The chorus is all smoky yearning, as she sings in her affectless, girlish voice, "When the war is over/When we all come home/I will wait for you dear/At the Café Hong Kong."

It's interesting that "Café Hong Kong" should appear just a few months after Belle and Sebastian's "I Fought In a War," another indie-pop song about war-torn lovers packing their deferred hopes into letters. Together, the two suggest a longing for the kind of life-or-death romantic drama that one imagines must have animated life when the world was in turmoil. War, the songs suggest, would clarify relationships gone slack and confusing by peace and its endless, overwhelming options.

Merritt, whose lyrics and use of guest vocalists imagine multifarious sexual pairings and possibilities, is certainly no reactionary wishing for a simpler time. Yet sarcastic as he can be, his songs often glance fondly at an era when passion wasn't utterly corroded by irony.

ANOTHER OF MERRITT'S special talents is the ability to express heartbreak and humiliation while retaining his dignity. He combines Morrissey's flayed sensitivity with Nick Cave's rumbling grandiose swagger, especially on "Good Thing I Don't Have Any Feelings," where he croons with world-weary gravity, "It's a damn good thing/That I can't feel a damn thing/Anymore."

The final track is a remix of "Hopeless," a song that also appeared in separate versions on the other two Future Bible Heroes releases. Ordinarily, one hungry for new work by the band might feel cheated, but "Hopeless" is such a delicious song that new iterations are welcome. The remix has Gonson singing (both Merritt and Gonson have recorded it), over music that's even more dizzy and hyperactively up-tempo than in the original.

Again, it's the play between the despair in the words and the optimism in the tune that makes the song so compelling. It begins with the lines "You've been tearing out your hair/And I've been drinking" set to bright, crisp synthesizer swirls. The chorus is pure desolation rendered even more tragic by its joyous accompaniment.

"There's no use even trying because it's hopeless/All of our dreams are dying of overdoses/All of our plans are lying in 10-car road wrecks. There's just no point in crying, you know it's hopeless," Gonson sings. The lyrics empathize with all your failures even as the music buoys you on a cotton-candy cloud. Dejection has never sounded so exhilarating.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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