By Mark Guarino
If you’ve ever been in love, you know it’s never much like a Clay Aiken song. Or Whitney Houston, Celine Dion or Shania Twain.
Love is a many splendored — and not so splendored — thing, as one song goes. There are a spectrum of emotions, plenty of comedy, high doses of passion, a kind of fragility and certainly loathing in the thick of it.
To document those grayer areas of romance is the work of Stephin Merritt, a late thirtysomething New Yorker who has become a one-man cottage industry of love songs. Although his band the Magnetic Fields had already recorded five albums, it wasn’t until the three-disc opus “69 Love Songs” (Merge) in 1999 that brought him a wider audience and critical fervor. That album spun the many disparate sides of love through a blender of equally disparate American music — old-time country, techno dance, Broadway, singer-songwriter, electro-pop.
Despite its ambition, the collection never takes itself too seriously. For all the depressive songs about failed ambition and unrequited love, there are others that are gleefully ecstatic, very goofy and unabashedly full of sap. Because Merritt knows the formulas he’s working in inside and out, the album is a hallmark of classic pop craftmanship.
“I made lists,” Merritt said recently by phone. “Because I wanted to make sure the album was not just about unrequited love. So there was no emergency. It didn’t look like I was gong to have 68 songs about unrequited love and one about happiness.”
In interviews at the time, Merritt admitted releasing an album of 69 songs was a stunt to bring attention to his songwriting. The same might be true of its follow-up, “i” (Nonesuch), which features 14 songs that all begin with the letter — you guessed it — “i.”
“I did feel pressure to follow up ‘69 Love Songs’ so I basically responded to it with a parody of the idea,” he said. “It was intentionally pathetic … but the songs are better.”
Unlike its looming predecessor, there are no synthesizers on “i.” Instead it is much more muted, featuring elegant piano and guitar tunes, peppered with banjo and cello. Also featuring Sam Davol on cello, Claudia Gonson on piano and drums, and John Woo on guitar and banjo, the album is warm, compassionate and largely about unrequited feelings and awkward stabs at connecting. It is a much more concise album, more tuneful and with lyrics that ring of comic truths.
“So you quote-unquote love me/well stranger things have come to be/so let’s agree to disagree/’cause I don’t believe you,” sings Merritt (“I Don’t Believe You”). On “I Wish I had an Evil Twin,” he fantasizes of unleashing his fury through a twin sibling that would “cull and conquer, cut and kill/just like I would if I weren’t good.”
Merritt is the rare songwriter who is embraced by the indie rock world and the more cerebral world of classical opera and theatre. Besides the Magnetic Fields, he fronts the synth pop group the 6ths, is the one-man band behind the Gothic Archies, a project providing theme music for the bestselling children’s audio books by Lemony Snicket, and is a cameo lyricist for the Future Bible Heroes. Merritt also wrote “Peach Blossom Fan,” an opera that made its debut this spring in L.A.
A prodigious worker, Merritt said he never works on a particular project at a time. He’s just always writing songs. His daily schedule is dedicated to recording or general busy work. At night, he visits gay bars to write where he “listens to disco music with a cocktail in one hand and a pencil in another.” The environment, he said, is attractive because he can be “negatively inspired by what’s playing” on the jukebox.
Starting tonight, the Magnetic Fields play five sold-out shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music through Sunday. Merritt said to expect a quiet show on all acoustic instruments due to the prolonged hearing damage he’s developed over the years. It is a problem partially due to heredity, he said, but partially due to seeing “Einstuerzende Neubauten in 1983 where they used a circular saw on a 20-foot piece of corrugated metal and I was standing three feet away,” he said. “That kind of thing, working in a punk rock nightclub for years, playing the electric guitar in a rock group directly in front of cymbal crashes, mixing for days on headphones loudly. So I deserve it, basically.”
He is looking forward to the Old Town School shows, mostly to add to the green room art scrawl started by Joni Mitchell and continued by visiting performers over the years. “We’re all very interested to see how the graffiti is going,” he said.