Just around a year ago, the Magnetic Fields performed 69 Love
Songs over two nights at the Somerville Theater in Somerville,
Mass.; for an encore, Stephin Merritt and his group of players and
singers stood, hands linked, at the foot of the stage, for exactly
four minutes and 33 seconds a sly cover of composer John
Cage's notorious "4:33," a musical piece consisting entirely of rests
(the same "cover" appears in between "Distant Plastic Trees" and "The
Wayward Bus" on Merge Records' single-disc reissue of those two early
albums). Some people in the audience shouted heckles and threats,
some whispered to their friends with knit brows, others sat back and
"listened" with knowing grins.
This new album, which Merritt wrote for the film "Eban & Charley,"
will anger the hecklers, confuse the whisperers, and delight the
grinners. Consisting of six above-average, classically Merritt pop
songs and a slew of short instrumentals that can only be described as
nouveau-avant-garde, the album is surprisingly consistent despite its
unbalanced components. It just depends on what kind of listener you
are it's easy to skip through the instrumental tracks, but
they're certainly a worthwhile part of the album, and an important
step in Merritt's career.
Merritt's proclivity toward the avant-garde has never been hidden
(consider the last 15 minutes of the Sixths' "Hyacinths and
Thistles," which stretches out seemingly forever on one repeating
keyboard line), but it hasn't shown up so proudly or with such
availability before this album. The little snippets of
instrumentation include toy pianos, regular pianos, interesting and
varied percussion, and strange sound effects that vary from nature
clips to what sounds like video games. The compositions seem like the
results of Merritt's obsessive studio commandeering, but they're
still full of emotion "Cricket Problem"'s down-tempo finish is
soaked in sadness, and "Victorian Robotics," a plodding but
structured collage of echoey percussion, somehow conveys a feeling of
tension, hard to pin down but undeniable.
How this series of odd and breezy instrumentals fits into a film
about a gay May-December romance will remain unknown, as the film's
flash-in-the-pan theatrical release lasted about as long as the
running time of the soundtrack. How the pop songs fit into the film
is another, possibly harder, question to answer. Short, minute-long
sketches like "This Little Ukelele" and "Tiny Flying Player Pianos"
would seem to focus an audience's attention on the songs they're
hearing and not the image in front of them it's hard not to
notice and be drawn to a line like "Tiny flying player pianos carried
aloft on the breeze; as evening falls, they hang beneath the eaves."
It's another variation on a question posed by so many films: is the
soundtrack a representation of the movie, or is the film a vehicle
for the soundtrack? Guess we'll have to wait for the video to figure
that one out.
Regardless of how they might be utilized in "Eban & Charley,"
"Poppyland" and "Maria Maria Maria" are two very strong entries, the
latter a slow, beautiful entreaty of unrequited love, the former an
upbeat and joyful tune about a place in which "all your favorite
things are painted on the wings of the butterflies" and "wished-upon
moonbeams and abandoned dreams, they fall like snow." It's up to
interpretation whether those things are good or horrible, or whether
the song is Merritt's ode to recreational drug use, but it sure
sounds pretty, nonetheless. These fleshed-out, fully realized songs
put the shorter tunes into context, and make the album into a
cohesive whole. It's a subtle equation, but Merritt has combined his
knowledge of the workings of pop music with his own experimental
tendencies to make it work.