I caught “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields” at the tail end of the BAFICI festival a couple years ago. Somehow I’ve developed this bizarre habit of bookending my BAFICI itinerary every year with films about music. Last year it was “Look at What the Light Did Now” and “Upside Down”. The year before that, it had been “Strange Powers” that served as the sullen denouement to a week and a half of not sleeping enough. It was a fitting end to the festival, the walk back home at 2 AM being more or less the equivalent to that dirgy post-carnival scene; rides and stands boarding up, leaving behind only the torn-up tickets in the wet grass. And the wonderfully sad songs of Stephin Merritt playing in my headphones, lulling me back into routine.
As a film– as a documentary– “Strange Powers” is simply okay. Culled together from 10 years’ worth of footage and stories, it still manages to feel stretched out too thin, its analysis superficial and lightweight. Putting too much stock on the wry likability of its subject, it ends up coming across as a fluff piece and borderline hagiography. But for someone who’s already well attuned to the Magnetic Fields sound and aesthetic, it is nothing less than a treat, especially for the brief peeks and glimpses it allows into the creative process of Stephin Merritt and his band.
I will admit to not having an encyclopedic knowledge on The Magnetic Fields. And it breaks my heart, because I really love their music; their elegant wordplay, their almost compulsive eclecticism, the boldness and width of their sonic palette. There’s a sense of adventure in their records, one that challenges that silly notion that “genre exercise” is somehow a dirty concept, something to stay away from lest one be perceived as a musical tourist. And while it could be argued that Merritt– a songwriter who is very much in the vein of the Gershwins and Porters of old– takes an approach that values craftsmanship over inspiration, it only takes a listen to his magnum opus 69 Love Songs to obliterate the notion that this approach can’t result in gorgeous and thrilling pop songs.
69 Love Songs is the crowning achievement in a career that’s been all about attempting to separate the “love” from the love song. As the title implies, it is a record made up of 69 songs, spread over 3 LPs, covering a wide range of genres (most falling within the amplest definitions of “pop”), with the one unifying thread being the topic of love in all its forms. While that sounds like it’d make for a mildly interesting yet ultimately desultory collection, Merritt creates an album rich in melody and charm that more than holds up throughout its 172-minute playing time. Each song a gem in its own way– some silly, some sad, some over-the-top saccharine and some breathtakingly stark.
“You’re My Only Home” is one of the quieter tracks, a beauty buried in track 9 of volume 2. The music is made up entirely of thick globs of synthesizer; an impossibly deep and serene synth line being pulled up by the harmonies surrounding it, settling into a circular melody line. It’s a song of complete surrender and total devotion, underscored by a deep sadness and fear; fear of rejection, of being left alone. It’s a different kind of torch song; Merritt’s crooning voice is not impassioned or perfervid, like the rousing moments in Sinatra’s “One for My Baby”; there’s no fire simmering underneath his words. Instead, his voice sounds tired, listless, resigned. This song isn’t a grandiose statement of devotion. It is a languid plea.
A big chunk of “Strange Powers” is spent discussing Merritt’s ability to write these impersonal, yet beautiful, love songs. To remove himself and that dreaded confessional quality from his music and to create three-minute fictions. And throughout most of 69 Love Songs, this rings true– surely “Papa Was a Rodeo” isn’t autobiographical, and “Zebra” sounds like a musical number from a forgotten 1950s movie– but somehow “You’re My Only Home” feels genuine, honest. It feels like the only song in the album in which Merritt isn’t wearing a mask. And maybe that’s why it resonates so much with me. Or maybe it’s that sweet-ass synth line. Who knows.
“Bedhead Melodies” is a really ridiculous term I am using to refer to a very specific kind of song– usually quiet, sad and romantic– that will pop up on my iPod’s shuffle mode late late at night and put me in a special kind of mood. A weepy, mushy, waffley, write-long-emails-to-ex-girlfriends mood. Yes. The next morning I’m embarrassed, they’re embarrassed, nobody’s happy. Basically, what I’m saying is, I should really go to bed.