Sunday, July 7, 2013

Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (2013)



You can and should forgive your heroes their indulgences. Stephin Merritt would owe me nothing even if it'd just been 13 love songs -- but since he went for more than five times that, I've smiled and rolled my eyes only a little at his subsequent itch to become the Irving Berlin of novelty songs. With rhymes about "sarcastic sharks" and actively aggressive stabs at Christmas music, the last two Magnetic Fields albums were as fun as they sound -- but also a little shrill, and more than a little impersonal, as though Merritt's long-term mockery of the pop music field that fascinates him had blossomed into an alienating cynicism. If Realism and Love at the Bottom of the Sea sometimes felt like intellectual exercises more than enthusiastically presented music, it probably wasn't by accident. Merritt didn't seem to have much need or desire to return to whatever well provided us with "The Book of Love" and "I Think I Need a New Heart," songs whose self-deprecating jokes and platitudes betrayed their ache.

He did not, however, lose his capability, as proven by his latest record and his best since Distortion, very possibly earlier than that, I wouldn't want to say how much earlier. There are distinctions behind the scenes between Merritt's various musical projects, mostly tied to the collaborators used and the nature of the collaboration -- in the case of Future Bible Heroes, the keyboards are programmed and played by Chris Ewen, and Claudia Gonson sings a little more than Merritt does (though given how much of Bottom of the Sea is belted out by Gonson or Shirley Simms, that seems a less surefire designation now). But for you, the listener, the differences between the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, the 6ths and plain old Stephin Merritt are mostly academic. But Merritt's mood is vastly different on this outing than it was just last year.

Maybe it's something to do with getting older, anxieties about which were already audible on the collective's previous record Eternal Youth; in that sense, the music only backs up the wistful glancing backward. It's no longer, as during the period when the Fields hit their artistic peak, a "statement" to evoke straight Construction Time Again-vintage Alan Wilder arrangements or to long for "a dance floor where no one says maybe" while throwing back to radio pop and hi-NRG in equal measure. Merritt's pop interests are now suggestive of a very distinctly different time, and his fascination with the architecture of "the hit" is twenty years or more behind; the same could be said of Robert Schneider from the Apples in Stereo. Despite their vastly incompatible dispositions, the two men both exercise in a form of expression that they carried from their youth, from a time when ELO and ABBA's presence on the radio was not seen as a freak accident. And as much as Schneider cheerleads and projects rampant positivity, Merritt can only sense the way that this occasions melancholy and despair -- but with a slight wink, as always.

So Partygoing is dance music, although not in any modern sense -- even by the standards of an indieverse very much consumed by the sound of 1980s, its club constructions are both convincing and defiantly unhip. The hopeful sprightliness of "A New Kind of Town" is merrier than a toothpaste commercial, and despite Gonson's deadpan, the flamboyant "Living, Loving, Partygoing" is more reverent than subversive, not just because it longs for nights of dancing until 4 but because you can't come up with that "LIVING [whisper] living / LOVING [whisper] loving" chorus without a lot of adoration of a bygone art. Ewen's ebullient arrangements cast Gonson and Merritt's vocals in a new light, sure, but the two of them also are singing more expressively than in recent years. Gonson gets liberally manipulated, going on creepily about how deep our love was, on "Let's Go to Sleep," but without the aid of outside transformation manages a Nico level of alienation on "How Very Strange," which comes on like something from the incredibly eccentric back third of 69 Love Songs. Merritt, meanwhile, belts "Love Is A Luxury I Can No Longer Afford" like it's 19-whenever he recorded The Charm of the Highway Strip, on which he probably would have conjured up a better couplet than "for your sake / I would bake wedding cake," but that's forgivable.

Scary, apocalyptic, and emotionally honest -- that sort of sums up Merritt's career in general, but he's letting us in a little more than usual on this year's episode. Practically the only major trait this shares with Bottom of the Sea is its brevity -- 34:11 isn't enough time to cover even a third of 69, and he seems to like it that way. Make no mistake: he hasn't lost his black humor or the frivolity of many of his lyrics. "Digging My Own Grave," a great Yaz and/or PSB imitation, succeeds despite the silly lyric that means the title quite literally. "A Drink Is Just the Thing" casts Claudia in a film noir but still suggests a reading at a cutesy poetry recital. And "Keep Your Children in a Coma" nearly could be a latter-day Fields track, but it's bouncier and less stoic thanks to Ewen, and no one said these songs weren't funny -- "they have to program everything" is almost David Byrne circa Fear of Music-worthy.

But while there are mild suggestions that Merritt's found a medium between his obligations to awkward rhyming poetry and the sheer joyous eccentricity (and red-eyed melancholy) that marked his best work, what's really happening on Partygoing was best described by my friend Andrew: it's a return to sincerity. Of course, you don't have to travel far to find Merritt cultists who will yell at you for suggesting that he was ever sincere -- but even if he was always bullshitting, the stories of "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" and "Born on a Train" always felt lived-in and true because they spoke to genuine universal feelings, something all the best storytellers and, uh, pop music composers can do on a good day. This is, to put it mildly, a good day. Four reasons: First, "Sadder Than the Moon," on which Merritt's pain returns within his most assured vocal since Distortion, his most convincing ballad since god knows when, adventurous arrhythmic trickery, and a weird arrangement with holow choral murmuring in the background that plays as a long-lost outtake from Get Lost. Even the title sounds like something from Get Lost. Second, "Satan, Your Way Is a Hard One" is probably a joke, but its low-key delivery is so free of gimmickry that I can't help feeling that it would have significantly changed the tone of everything else that made it to the last Fields LP. Thirdly, "Drink Nothing But Champagne" tackles Merritt's adoration of the musical traditionalism of the Great American Songbook as more than a hollow exercise in imitation -- here, it's a game and winning evocation, a sophisticated singalong with a surprising melody and a tight lyric. In an allusion to Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song," Merritt conjures up and delightfully connects the dots from Jesus to Bowie to Hitler to Churchill to Aleister Crowley (!) with the common denominator of guess what.

But for those who were gravely disappointed that nothing on Love at the Bottom of the Sea was melodically or lyrically worthy of its priceless single "Andrew in Drag," I give you "All I Care About Is You," which is one of the man's best cuts of this century. With "Drag" it shares a towering melody and skating rink production, and a verse and chorus both full of hooks; with a luminous body of work it shares pain and humor; with no one else in the pop idiom it shares lines like "suddenly I don't wish I were dead anymore." And if you haven't cared in years, it'll make you.

The thirteen songs here collectively serve to make a wholly different impression than any of Merritt's last several releases, and unlike all of them it displays no serious conceptual gimmick, which may be one key to its excellence. Putting aside Ewen's engaging stylistics for just a moment, in terms of vocal performance and songwriting, Merritt properly reins in his impulses for both melodrama and novelty. Partygoing is just new songs in the same old idiom; it treads no new ground but it's him. That weird investment in Hollywood fused with mournful "As Tears Go By" lament on "When Evening Falls in Tinseltwon" -- it couldn't be more idiosyncratic, or more appealing to those for whom these particular idiosyncrasies have been a hallmark for over twenty years now. I'm putting this in Merritt and, hell, the Magnetic Fields' column as a resounding success because it's the first time since I've been a fan that I can point to a new release under any name from the Merritt camp and say "this is why I love this man's work."

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