Stephin Merritt

MassMOCA / North Adams, MA

Stephin Merritt by Gail O'Hara
Stephin Merritt by Gail O’Hara


With the heart of a lover, the world view of a comedian, the mind of a free-thinker and the soul of a serial killer, Stephin Merritt’s performances fall neatly into one category: Stephin Merritt Performances. Forget that his performance takes place in a museum where trees grow upside down above our heads; overlook that the only two instruments onstage are a cello and a ukulele; ignore that his set list is in alphabetical order; dismiss that Merritt and his accompanist, cellist Sam Davol walk offstage while a MIDI machine continues their last song…even if all that were normal, this fellow is different.

As the lead singer and songwriter of the Magnetic Fields, Merritt drew heavily on those songs for his 26-song, A-to-Z set, though he included his Future Bible Heroes and the 6ths songs, and one from his musical version of Coraline, the alternate-universe tale in which he gave the chorus of mice “the usual mouse speech defects” of a lisp and rhoticism (e.g. thumb Anthient Womanth thpoke vewy badwy). “Shipwrecked,” (the “S” song, from the Gothic Archies), like a number of Merritt daydreams, begins with the lover’s heart:

I can’t think of a single thing I’d rather do
Than be cast away on an island with you

and ends with his killer soul:

I can’t think of a single thing I’d rather do
And that’s why I had to get rid of the crew
So I lopped off their heads and dropped them in the sea
Just to have you shipwrecked on a tropical island with me

Or from “P,” for Pretty Girl:

A pretty girl is like a violent crime
If you do it wrong, you could do time,
But if you do it right, it is sublime

No Jake Shimabukuro on the ukulele, Merritt strums quietly and lets his deep baritone and Sam Davol’s excellent cello do the musical heavy lifting. Magnetic Fields member Davol, who neither sang nor said a word during the 90-minute concert, varied his delivery from playing classical cello to plucking strings like a standup bass (as on #24, “Xylophone”), and everything in between. The melodies themselves are good, and happily, the cellist had several solos, notably on #5, “Epitaph For My Heart,” but throughout Davol maintained the ideal accompanist role: adding another dimension while knowing exactly when less is more.

Merritt exposes his vulnerabilities (I suspect he has many), but, in varying degrees, delivers a “just kidding” line which re-invents his songwriter persona a smartass, not a sad sack. It’s hard to believe a true cynic could come up with a line about loneliness like “I’d sell my soul just to hear my telephone ring” (#7, “Give Me Back My Dreams”). The images he paints are sometime haunting and always fresh. A woman laments the discovery of her husband’s well-trafficked bachelor pad with “There isn’t a chair in my husband’s pied-à-terre” (#13, “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre”).

“Quirky” isn’t a strong enough word for Stephin Merritt, but one Magnetic Fields album is aptly named Genius, which may be a better fit. Merritt may inspire other musicians and poets to think outside the cubicle, but will he spawn imitators? Probably not. Did Einstein?

– Suzanne Cadgène

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