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.