A Man of Letters
Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields Return With i

Lyrics used to mean nothing to me.

There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when I honestly couldn’t have told you what my favorite songs were about. Oh, I knew what they meant to me, of course, and I knew even then that the melodies were the important bits, especially those melodies that got stuck in my head for hours and days and weeks. But I would hum the melodies, you see, without the slightest clue what words the singer was passionately trying to get across.

A number of different musical experiences contributed towards changing my mind, notably Christian rock and “Weird Al” Yankovic (and I can’t believe I just typed a sentence that contains both the phrase “Christian rock” and the name “Weird Al” Yankovic, and moreover, I can’t believe that the absurdity of the sentence disturbs me more than what the sentence says about me), but the one song I can remember really putting me over was Asia’s “Only Time Will Tell.”

Not because the lyrics to “Only Time Will Tell” are good, of course, but because they’re terrible. My young brain found the music so majestic, so important-sounding, that when I finally read the words, the stupid pop love song sentiments really diminished the song in my eyes. (It helped that I first heard the song in an instrumental version, arranged for my high school concert band. I played alto saxophone and got some really cool parts in that song, if I recall.) How could they saddle such a great song with such sappy, brain-dead lyrics?

I still have the same mental block, if only in limited degrees. I sometimes have to remember to engage the English-speaking part of my brain (as opposed to the music-speaking part) when listening to a new record, or the words will float right by me. Sometimes, as with Asia’s song (and in fact Asia’s whole repertoire), it’s better that way. Sometimes I come across songs that are so dumb lyrically that I would probably dismiss them out of hand if I hadn’t already fallen in love with the melodies and harmonies through four previous lyrics-oblivious listens. Like, say, those on Sloan’s entire last album.

If there is any criticism to be leveled against the Beatles, still tops in my Best Band Ever in the Whole Wide Universe list, it’s that their lyrics are often sub-par. If I were to be uncharitable, I could say that the first half of the Beatles catalog is so cliché-ridden it’s almost laughable, and the second half is so nonsensical it’s almost befuddling. But if you cut right to the heart of the thing, the songs still rock. “I Saw Her Standing There” is still a terrific rock and roller, despite its schoolyard crush inanities, and “I Am the Walrus” is still an amazing piece of music, despite imagery that refuses, over and over again, to cohere.

So the question, then: do lyrics matter? This was the subject of a recent point-counterpoint-style article in Entertainment Weekly, which anticlimactically boiled down to one writer’s distaste for Bob Dylan. Still, it’s a fun subject to bat around. But unlike those highly paid music scribes (grumble grumble) at EW, I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that question. Do lyrics matter? Yeah, sometimes. Does the music matter more? Yeah, sometimes.

It’s a sign of my ever-expanding perspective on music that I now own many, many CDs from artists who are all about the lyrics. Take Ani DiFranco, for example. She’s a terrific poet, a swell guitar player and a first-rate singer, but she has rarely inspired me with her songwriting. There have been times, especially recently, when she has hit upon a winning melody and carried it off, but most of the time I’m drawn to her arrangements (especially when she uses horn sections) and her words. DiFranco occupies the exact opposite end of the spectrum from a guy like Prince, whose lyrics do nothing for me. Prince, though, is all about the song.

Another of those wordsmiths I enjoy is Stephin Merritt. He rarely records under his own name, but leads and guides a host of projects – Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, the 6ths. The one for which he is best known, though, is the Magnetic Fields, and it’s with this group that his material shines brightest. Merritt is an old-school songwriter, and when I say old school, I mean Irving Berlin and George Gershwin old. He’s an unabashed romantic who always finds clever spins on old saws like broken hearts and first dances.

Here’s the thing, though. While Merritt writes a good lyric, he sometimes stumbles on the melodic end of things, keeping to one or two safe chord progressions. He has an interesting voice – a wavery baritone most of the time, but he can hit tenor notes – and his arrangements are sometimes quite odd, with synthesizers where there ought to be pianos and strings. He has the good sense to utilize different singers, most notably in the 6ths, but also on Magnetic Fields albums, because his melancholy vocals can get dreary over extended listens.

But his words are extraordinary, always. Whenever I buy a new Merritt project, I read the lyrics first, and that experience is more often than not more enjoyable than hearing the songs for the first time. Merritt’s best-known project is the Fields’ 69 Love Songs, a three-CD set of romantic pop ditties that surveys six decades of cliches and recasts them beautifully. Thing is, after more than two dozen or so listens through the whole thing, I can only remember a few melody lines.

But I remember the words: the unsentimental sentimentality of “The Book of Love,” the delightfully specific desperation of “Come Back From San Francisco,” the mock-pompous hilarity of “We Are King of the Boudoir.” In fact, I don’t really remember that last song at all, musically speaking, but I have no trouble recalling that it contains the non-word “prowesslessnesslessness.” (Meaning, of course, “prowess.”)

I used to complain that Magnetic Fields albums were all too short, but if 69 Love Songs proved anything, it’s that Merritt’s work is better digested in small doses. And thus we now have the follow-up, a 43-minute album called i. That’s right, lower case. While i may be shorter and less ambitious than Love Songs, I’m finding that I can grasp it more fully, and that I remember it more completely. Merritt seems to have condensed the various styles of 69 Love Songs here, so that the result sounds like a sampler disc for the box set, even though none of the songs appear.

Though the styles are similar, there are two major differences between the last album and this one. First, Merritt sings everything, and i is just short enough that his vocals don’t get overly grating. Second, he has banished the synthesizers that have cropped up on every Magnetic Fields album, replacing them with gentle guitars and Sam Davol’s haunting cello. This choice results in Merritt’s best-sounding work to date, even though it gets a little melancholy and ballad-heavy near the end.

Every Merritt album is tied together by a concept, even a loose one, and i is no exception: all of the songs start with the titular letter, and they’re arranged alphabetically. Who knows if the songs were written to this conceit, but the sequence works – you go from the downcast opener “I Die” to the lovely and romantic closer “It’s Only Time,” and the album leaves you feeling lighter and brighter than when it began. In between, you get the sprightly pop of “If There’s Such a Thing as Love,” the classical swing of “I’m Tongue Tied,” the faux-ballet “In an Operetta,” and the gay disco sendup “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend,” alongside Merritt’s trademark balladry.

But as usual, it’s the lyrics that shine here. Some highlights:

Old single “I Don’t Believe You” gets a full dressing-up on this record, and the words haven’t aged a bit: “So you quote love unquote me, well, stranger things have come to be, but let’s agree to disagree, ‘cause I don’t believe you.” And later: “So you’re brilliant, gorgeous and ampersand after ampersand, and you think I don’t understand, but I don’t believe you.”

“I Don’t Really Love You Anymore” is a screamingly funny stalker anthem. “I am a gentleman, think of me as just your fan, who remembers every dress you’ve ever worn,” Merritt sings, and he continues, “Just the bad comedian, your new boyfriend’s better than, ‘cause I don’t really love you anymore.” Later he opines hopefully that “there will be some day when your eyes do not enthrall me.”

“I Looked All Over Town” takes the old lyrical cliché of the sad clown and literalizes it: “I wandered in these big blue shoes,” he sings, admitting that “nothing’s going to change this painted frown, and I know, ‘cause I looked all over town.” At the end, he escapes in a sad yet beautiful way: “So whistling a circus tune, I inflated one more balloon, and as I floated up I looked straight down, and I looked all over town.”

“I Wish I Had an Evil Twin” is not as silly as it sounds – it’s about guilt and regret and wishing for someone else to take responsibility: “I’d get no blame and feel no shame, ‘cause evil’s not my cup of tea, down and down he’d go, how low I would not need to know, all my life there should have been an evil twin.”

I haven’t heard a more romantic line than this recently: “If there’s such a thing as love, I’m in it.” Later in the same song (“If There’s Such a Thing as Love”), Merritt whips out this verse: “When I was two-and-a-half, my mama said to me, ‘Love is funny, you will laugh, until the day you turn three.’ Like a kitten up a tree needs a fireman to rescue it, so your fireman I will be, and I’ll really get into it.”

There’s a song called “Infinitely Late at Night,” which is just a brilliantly impossible title, with a great line buried in its final verse: “It’s all black and white without the white.”

But Merritt reserves his sweetest lines for the final song, “It’s Only Time.” It’s a classic pop song, with classic pop song lyrics: “Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now, it’s only time…” But for once, the real pleasure here is musical. Merritt unveils a slender, fragile falsetto that brings genuine emotion to this little tune. It’s a great way to go out.

Someday, perhaps, music historians will look back on Stephin Merritt the same way they look back on songwriters like Cole Porter. There will be Stephin Merritt songbooks, and standards bands will learn these numbers for weddings and other special occasions. His songs have the class and grace of revered chestnuts, and at the very least, his lyrics stand up to those of the best pop tunesmiths. i is another collection of witty and wonderful words, set to some of Merritt’s most memorable music, and when you see these songs appearing in a Broadway revue titled something like The Songs of Stephin Merritt, don’t be surprised.

As for the question of lyrics vs. music, well, ideally they should fit together to form a perfect whole. It’s taken me a while to come to this opinion, but asking which is more important is like asking which is more vital to the creation of water, hydrogen or oxygen. It’s true that you need twice as much hydrogen, but without that one part oxygen, you have no ocean.

And with that pitiful stab at profundity, I bid thee adieu. Next week, I play catch-up.

See you in line Tuesday morning.