If The Magnetic Fields never released another album after 1999's 69 Love Songs, the band would still have a secure spot in the history of indie rock. The three-disc set lived up to its name, cutting across a wide range of arrangements to create a series of catchy pop tunes, with some of the most brilliant lyrics about amore this side of Cole Porter. There really wasn't a bad banana in the bunch.
But Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephin Merritt has continued the group through four more albums — in addition to his other musical projects, like scoring the stage production of Neil Gaiman's Coraline — each one showcasing his gift for brilliant couplets full of melancholia and dry wit.
Despite a reputation for being a little gruff with the press, Merritt can also be charming, in a subdued way. This becomes clear when discussing the touring band's instrumentation, which, unlike the new synth-heavy album Love at the Bottom of the Sea, features a mix of organs, piano, cello, acoustic guitar and ukulele — the latter a Magnetic Fields regular. "We just sound like a folk group. No bass or drums. No rhythm section," he deadpans. "It's horrible!"
When asked about the lighter side of his lyrics, his reply begins with a trademark long pause. "I don't think I should be like [the band] Sparks and pretend there's no humor in my lyrics," he says. "But what I will say is that any humor that gets into my lyrics is usually there by my simply allowing silly things to rhyme rather than [it being the case] that I'm literally making jokes."
As an example, he mentions the new album's closing track, "All She Cares About Is Mariachi."
"All the rhymes are wildly improbable," he says, "and all of them are not found in a rhyming dictionary: Liberace, hibachi, Saatchi & Saatchi. I'm a big fan of rhyme. I think allowing the rhyme to get as silly as it feels like, is a great source of humor and entertainment. I love Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s when he was really silly. After the accident he kind of got serious."
Still, Merritt might be better known for his knack at depicting the bluer side of romance in songs with titles like "I Don't Want to Get Over You" and "Seduced and Abandoned." Part of that skill might come from his songwriting workshop, as it were. "When the sun goes down, I go straight to the gay bar and sit with a cocktail in one hand and a pen in the other, and write usually for a few hours," he says. The lyrics come out there, but he borrows a philosophy from another set of tunesmiths in regards to the music.
"I go on the ABBA theory that if you have to write down the melody, it's not memorable enough. And if you can't remember it, then other people won't either. Which is why my songs and ABBA songs are almost all catchy."
Whether or not you're a fan of the Swedish hit machine, you can't argue with the logic.