Musician, Heal Thyself

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields did some music reviews in yesterday’s New York Times. I wasn’t going to blog anything about this, but I find myself continuing to think about it, so it’s probably worth discussing. The reviews are fun, well-written, and a little mean. (It made me think Stephin Merritt would be an interesting replacement for the annoying culture guy, Jai, on Queer Eye). And who else would think that a great castrati revival would usher in a new golden age of music? Anyway, lest Terri call me a grump, I should preface this by saying that I like the Magnetic Fields a lot; I listened to nothing but 69 Love Songs from about November 2000 – July 2001. But I’m still going to trash Stephin Merrit’s reviews, because I thoroughly enjoyed them. Not because I’m a grump. Well. Not just because I’m a grump.

First off, I have not heard the new Morrissey album, and I haven’t decided if I care enough to. But the first criticism Merritt makes could be levelled at any Morrissey album: “the best lyricist in rock, Morrissey, still surrounds himself with dull musicians incapable of properly filling out his introspective kitchen-sink dramas.” I’m not sure if Morrissey is or is not the best lyricist in rock (or if it matters), but I don’t think that either of the quotes Merritt provides as examples would persuade me.

The thing is, he provides quotes as examples, and that’s not necessarily where you’d find excellence in Morrissey’s lyrics. Morrissey’s infatuation with the ever-epigrammatic Oscar Wilde always seemed to me to be at odds with his own modus operandi. Morrissey claimed substance over style; Oscar Wilde’s style was his substance. Only on a really good day does Morrissey ever seem to manage to compress a whole thought into a pithy one-liner, and he doesn’t seem to have had a really good day since the Smiths broke up. (Of course, this is Morrissey: has he ever had a really good day?) What’s more, I think any Morrissey lyric sounds really prosaic without music. “Spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening verse to a bucktoothed girl in Luxembourg” Great lyric, not really musical on its own.

So, then, why does Merritt pan the music? “At this level of lyric artistry, these warmed-over arena rock backdrops are a waste.” Tell it to Johnny Marr. A big part of the magic of the Smiths was the chemistry between the Morrissey lyrics and the masculine guitar rock. But the next bit, to me, is the skeleton key to the whole review. “One longs to lock him up for a year with, say, the pop orchestra the High Llamas” OK, so now we know Merritt’s big problem with Morrissey: he’s not Stephin Merritt. Because clever, pithy lyrics put on top of plinky, bubbly arrangements is sort of the formula for the Magnetic Fields.

And for my part, I think if anybody’s music deserves better arrangements than they get on their recording, it would be Merritt’s. Sometimes it’s fine. Sometime’s it’s even good. But for the most part, I almost always wish someone else were actually playing the song. Or that a real producer had come in and said “you know, this is a little muddy”. And this can’t be news to anybody: one of Merritt’s incarnations is as The Sixths, where each song on an album is sung by a different guest artist. But the vocals aren’t the problem for me: I kind of like Merritt’s droney super-low bass. It’s the love of the ukelele, the reliance on the drum machine that I could do without. One longs to lock Stephin Merritt in a room with Bootsy Collins for a year.

Finally, I can’t really fault him for this, because generally newspaper writers don’t get to write their own headlines, but that headline is just godawful.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long about Morrissey, and I don’t have energy left to dig into the other reviews. I really do like the Magnetic Fields, and I’m looking forward to going to see them at Berklee on Sunday. Who knows what they’re like live.

4 thoughts on “Musician, Heal Thyself”

  1. I feel like your comments about Morrissey’s lyrics somehow miss the point. And I should preface this by saying that I’m not too interested in most of his post-Smiths stuff, at least, not anything that’s come out in the last 10 years, probably. He totally has a style. If he’s claiming substance over style (where does he claim that?)… well, maybe that’s a part of his style because it’s a laugh. Certainly his lyrics are more intelligent that some of the “be my girl” type crap out there, and a lot better than many so-called intelligent artists’ lyrics, too.
    I’d also take issue with the lyric you mention having a lack of musicality–rhyming “indoors” and “Luxembourg” is a little musical… maybe not beautiful, but that lyric can almost be sing-songy, really.
    You’re SO looking for it when you call Johnny Marr’s music “masculine guitar rock.” SURELY YOU JEST!
    Personally, I think Morrissey together with the High Llamas would be totally sickening and inappropriate. Bottom line, Stephin Merritt doesn’t “get” Morrissey, or doesn’t “want” to, or both. Anyway, he’s way off base.
    And you’ve chosen a Smiths-era lyric. Perhaps a Morrissey-era lyric would make for a better example in this case.
    How about “I tried to surprise you/I crept up behind you/with a homeless chihuahua/you cooed for an hour/you handed him back and you said,/”you’ll never guess–I’m bored now.” If that’s substance over style, well… I dunno. Maybe we’re talking about different things when we say “style.” Now mind you, I’m not saying it’s GOOD style…not making a value judgement. And maybe that’s the problem. Reviewers are always trying to make value judgements, and I guess that’s what they’re supposed to be doing, but they tend to judge things by their own subjective criteria. They’re basically writing about themselves, and not what they’re reviewing, which makes them weenie wavers. Perhaps that’s why they’re asking Stephen Merritt, qualified and revered-in-certain-circles famous person, to do reviews.
    I discourage this behavior in you, Ez. :)

  2. Substance vs. style: I’ve read/heard Morrissey say it in interviews. It’s basically the theme of “Panic”. Burn down the disco, because that music doesn’t say anything, so it has no value. Unlike my music, which tackles *important* things like loneliness and despair and missing children and meat.

    Still, “Panic” is also at odds with The Chihuahua. Maybe that’s why I can’t write off Morrissey’s post-Smiths stuff– he managest to keep some of the paradox that made the Smiths work.

    I’m not jesting about Johnny Marr. It’s pretty strait up rock god guitar stuff. I’m not saying that’s bad.

  3. Yes, the Smiths did songs with some substantial content. To say that the style with which they did them was not a part of the point is preposterous. Pearl Jam did songs with substantive content, supposedly, but they’re god-awfully insufferable. (Some people would level the same criticism at the Smiths, I realize… unlike some reviewers, I recognize the fact of personal opinion/taste.) The style and intelligence (or wit or cheekiness or whatever) with which you do something matters. It’s a part of the substance (or lack thereof).
    I guess this is the central question with The Smiths… you either get caught up in the Morrisseyness of it all and can’t take them a bit seriously… or you can disregard that stuff a little bit when necessary to just enjoy the songs (though the Morrisseyness in undeniably a part of some of the songs).
    I don’t think of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing as being weenie waving guitar… which is what I think of when you say it’s masculine. I mean, “Back to the Old House” is beautiful guitar playing… not especially masculine. And then there’s “This Charming Man,” etc. etc. I guess “London” or something could be called aggressive, and maybe that’s stereotypically masculine, but I think that’s really an unsafe generalization about Johnny’s playing.
    “King Leer” is one of the very goofy yet somehow substantive (you can be substantive without always being serious in your take on things) songs from the post-Smiths era that is amusing.
    “It says nothing to me about my life” (Panic) can mean a lot of things. It doesn’t have to mean that the songs aren’t about anything, but it might mean that they don’t say anything useful, original, sensitive, perceptive, etc. about whatever they’re bleating about. And maybe it means that they lack some style with which to do so.

  4. Come to think of it… maybe Morrissey’s goofiness makes stomaching some of that serious stuff more possible. I mean, think of the aforementioned Pearl Jam and songs like “Luka” or “What’s the Matter Here?”…

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