Stephin Merritt's work swells with a post-modern zeitgeist; his songs are humorous and slightly overwritten, yet exposed and unflinchingly raw. His genius lies in his skillful manipulation of his listeners' emotions and expectations. Splashy, with histrionic pop quirks, Merritt's music provokes laughter, even as it carries lyrics with depressing themes.
Though still mostly unknown in mainstream music circles (despite a profile in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year that ran around the release of his soundtrack for Eban & Charley), Merritt is no neophyte. His unconventional approach to music finds voice in unique musical incarnations, most famously the Magnetic Fields. The Magnetic Fields' multi-CD opus, 69 Love Songs, garnered adulatory reviews, not just for its sheer magnitude, but for the experimental and innate intelligence of the songwriting-cum-theatricality. (All 69 songs were later performed live at a marathon concert in New York.) Merritt is also leader of two groups: The 6ths and the Gothic Archies.
For the Future Bible Heroes, Merritt finds inspiration with two collaborators: vocalist Claudia Gonson, who delivers Merritt's crisp lyrics with aplomb, and electronica master Chris Ewen. Ewen layers the album with fluttering, densely atmospheric synthesizers, producing a dank, insular mood, despite Merritt's lyrical hijinks and undeniable sense of irony.
The sententious songs on Eternal Youth run the thematic gamut, from the lovelorn to deathly and identity-questioning.
Take the bubbly "I'm a Vampire," on which Gonson (who sings every song on the album) identifies with social pariahs. As giddy electronics blister in the background, Gonson sings, "Damn/ I am what I am/ what I am/ and I am impossibly glam/ and I am happy as a clam." The song, regardless of its wacky subtext, is about being satisfied with oneself. Never too moralistic, Merritt's lyrics leave room for laughter; Gonson also sings, "I am a bitch goddess from beyond your grave/ I can turn into a bat/ I can cast the evil eye/ I have ever so much money/ I'm gorgeous and I can fly."
"Losing Your Affection," a doting, dedicated song about true love, which opens the album with temperate, warm electronics, is equally humorous. Gonson's voice levitates above the lowing synth-pop; the result is lucid and breezy.
The album is not without sadness, though. Brief, elegiac interludes like "The Slow Fade" haunt the album, never allowing Merritt's gregarious sensibilities to go over the top. "A Thousand Lovers in a Day," a polygamous rumination, is equally doleful, with Gonson rapt in longing and the swirling sounds. The song conveys the urgency with which people need to love and be loved. "Find an Open Window" is equally bare.
Eternal Youth is broad and ambitious. Merritt's singing is missing; his baritone would have added a male perspective, not to mention an added playfulness. But Gonson suffices. And Ewen crafts expansive soundscapes that complement Merritt's writing. Together, the Future Bible Heroes illustrate the beauty of collaboration.