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New York dolls: I

Stephin Merritt's fanfare for the common lover

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Though it may not seem likely that a self-cloistered member of the intelligentsia — whose personal chronicles include being partially raised in communes, educational stints at both Harvard and NYU's film school and some professional dabblings in music journalism — could quietly seize the mantle of pop laureate, that's exactly what's happened. The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, a man who by several accounts prefers chronic solitude over any living thing (save his pet chihuahua Irving), has immoderately laid before the world a doctoral-sized musical treatise on l'amour.

Released last fall (as both a box set and three individual CD volumes), 69 Love Songs ended the century as one of the most critically lauded records of the pop era. Considering its heft (nearly three hours all told) and its pedigree (Merritt's previous work with the Magnetic Fields and a handful of other acclaimed indie projects), it's more than a considerable triumph. Merritt, himself, recognizes the sense of elevation in his cultural status. "Nowadays when the New York Times says I'm a genius," he remarks, "they're serious."

Audacious displays such as 69 Love Songs are usually reserved for distorted egos who have been coaxed along by twisted management, previously huge record sales or delusional levels of hype. Merritt has been victim of none of the above. Instead, he's the beneficiary of a creative force majeur that happened to gel with a largely whimsical aspiration. Convinced that no one was putting out love songs of any lasting worth, Merritt saw that it should fall to him to right such a glaring deficiency. Initially, he planned to write 100 love songs for a hypothetical musical revue, but he ultimately whittled the concept down to 69. In doing so, he increased the likelihood eyebrows would raise to the obvious sexual reference, and once aroused, that listeners would actually be able to wade through the material. The revue idea soon dropped off and Merritt woodshedded for an entire year, writing alone and then recording with a small group of friends.

All-consuming as it would seem, Merritt immersed himself in the venture. "My routine was and is to spend the early afternoon at my habitual café and then spend the wee hours at my habitual gay bar that has a great jukebox," he says of his work process. "The great jukebox was an indispensable part of writing 69 Love Songs. It was a good way of getting rid of the day's musical detritus while I was recording. ... I did research into love, love songs and love letters especially. I had these two books that were not particularly useful, but the idea that they might be useful was useful. One was called Forever Yours: Letters of Love, from St. Martin's Press. I opened at random to a two-page spread with one letter from Napoleon to Josephine and the other one from Beethoven to the Immortal Beloved. The other book is How to Write Love Letters by Michelle Lovric."

What Merritt emerged with on the other end is less manifesto or concept album than a dizzyingly sound collection of love songs that poke, prod and celebrate the love-song form itself. Barely a genre or device is left unexplored. There are love songs from the wanderer ("Papa Was a Rodeo"), the bitter redress ("Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long") and even the ever-poignant suicide note ("Xylophone Track"). While the exercise borders on the academic, by gathering the material in little clumps, you don't have to get far into the second disc before you realize that lovelorn odes win out almost two-to-one. Songs that speak to those initial blips of romantic delight don't really stand a chance in Merritt's world. But that may have a lot to do with how he got here.

Today an openly gay resident of New York City in his early 30s, as a child Stephin Merritt followed his itinerant Buddhist hippie mother as she moved around, both in and out of the U.S. His father, a folk-singer of sorts who recorded two LPs in the late '60s, has apparently never figured much in his son's life (though Merritt says he's heard the records). Instead, he has harsh childhood memories of being subjected to Pete Seeger and, in response, found solace in songs like "Yellow Submarine" and the confection of ABBA.

He grew up largely friendless until the time he went to high school, where music began to bridge his isolation from others. On his way to becoming a bedroom four-track hero, Merritt met his closest confidante, Claudia Gonson, who has since become his manager, bandmate and collaborator. En route to destiny, he studied an off-beat flavor of semiotics and did time as a copy editor at Spin magazine, which still haunts him. "There are howling alphabetization errors in the 'Indispensable 69 Love Songs Index' [featured in the back of volume three]," he says. "I'm really good at alphabetization, and it's really strange that I would make so many errors."

Since the Magnetic Fields' 1990 debut, Merritt has also dedicated time to living out his synth-pop fantasies with the Future Bible Heroes, writing music for guest voices under the heading of the 6ths and letting all his pop gloom hang out in the Gothic Archies. Whether any one of those projects had the earmarks of what is stellar about 69 Love Songs is subjective stuff, but today Merritt seems certain that his most recent work is an unparalleled accomplishment, incomparable to any mere 14-song single album. "I think it is a stellar-type release," he says. "It's never been done before and its size is everything."

Unchanged by his newfound fame, in interviews Merritt is notorious for ultra-droll, wry self-commentary punctuated by painful gaps in conversation. The luckier among the media have been able to sit down with him in person while he lovingly tends to Irving. NPR's Terry Gross was able to elicit a near-laugh from Merritt during their appropriately aired Valentine's Day conversation (Irving's whereabouts notwithstanding). Otherwise, Merritt's carefully doled-out words sound as if they are being censored by a remote publicist, who feeds him measured responses through an ear piece.

But if Merritt feels more comfortable obscuring the person whose tremendous force of will brought forth the classically-crafted songwriting of "I Don't Believe in the Sun" (from volume one), then so be it. The appreciation of the lovely piano work, Merritt's almost foghorn baritone and lyrical oomph remains the same: "The moon to whom the poets croon/Has given up and died/Astronomy will have to be revised." Whether he's biding times with silly efforts like "Punk Love" or creating nifty and shameless responses to our own mojo with a tune like "Underwear," we are always helplessly amused and enchanted.

As indie-styled pop (relatively low-fi and not geared for mainstream recognition), the record may refurbish your faith in college radio, but as songwriting it's a traditionalist's dream. Looking past the pop culture reference, "Busby Berkeley Dreams" is a key example of all that Merritt has absorbed structurally from theater music, master composers of the early 20th century (Berlin, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart) and clever lyricists along the lines of Cole Porter. After all, when was the last time even Elvis Costello gave us lines as good as, "Acoustic Guitar, if you think I play hard/Well, you could have belonged to Steve Earle or Charo or Gwar/I could sell you tomorrow, so bring back my girl."

Now at work on a musical with a novelist friend, Merritt is supposedly ready to shed his indie-rock past. Will we all rush off to buy the eventual soundtrack? Perhaps not right off, but only because Merritt's musical intentions are not clear enough to be trusted. Whereas a fellow genius such as Prince is eight parts egotism riding on the back of prolific creativity, Merritt's work displays something of an inverse equation: prolific creativity spurred on by doubt, a touch of Nietzsche and a nothing-to-lose attitude. The challenges he faces now as an artist — with everyone from Rolling Stone to the New York Times confirming he's the one, the first true pop phenom of the new century — are uncertain. At least, they have to be somewhat tempting to squander.

The Magnetic Fields play the Variety Playhouse Thurs., April 20. Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 day of show. For ticket information, call 404-521-1786.

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