Stephin Merritt tells life in 50 songs, weird diseases and all

Shaun TANDON
Composer Stephin Merritt attends the celebration for the world premiere of the musical, "Coraline" in 2009 in New York City

Facing the task of summing up his 50 years on Earth through songs, Stephin Merritt has revealed unorthodox living arrangements, disdain for surfing and his knack for catching "weird diseases."

And he says almost nothing about The Magnetic Fields, the pop band that made him a counterculture icon.

Merritt, known for his bitingly sardonic lyricism sung in a deep, bass voice over music that dips into virtually every genre, has written one track for each year of his life on The Magnetic Fields' latest work, "50 Song Memoir."

The songwriter enjoyed his biggest success with another sprawling project -- 1999's "69 Love Songs" -- and quickly took up "50 Song Memoir" when his label chief proposed the idea at the oyster bar of New York's Grand Central Station.

Merritt has rarely described his music as autobiographical -- topics for past songs include the depression of a Chinese emperor and the death of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure -- and sought to revive his memory.

His mother charted out his first 25 years and his manager made a timeline for the following 25. Merritt picked out major moments -- and does not even mention The Magnetic Fields.

"You could probably listen to the album without realizing it was about a musician," Merritt, who is now 52, told AFP.

Merritt, who often crafts songs with a ukulele and without percussion, played more than 100 instruments on "50 Song Memoir" -- at least according to his label, Nonesuch, as Merritt said he hadn't counted.

"My next album -- 'Stephin Merritt, the Next 50 Years' -- will have to be entirely instruments I never used before, I guess," he said in a dry deadpan much like his lyrical delivery.

- Dive bars and fetishism -

"50 Song Memoir," which is out Friday, features accounts of Merritt's itinerant childhood as his free-spirited mother moved him to Hawaii and a Vermont commune and how he wound up in a cramped, insect-infested New York apartment.

He pens a love song to New York, "Have You Seen It In The Snow?," for 2001, the year of the September 11 attack, and relates a furtive attempt by the father he never knew to get in touch.

But for an artist whose early albums told bleak tales of unrequited love and whose side bands include The Gothic Archies, Merritt's musical memoir is strikingly upbeat.

Merritt paused when presented with that assessment and said: "At least I'm happy to hear that you don't consider it relentlessly downbeat. I have another band for that."

The album ends in 2015 when Merritt reveals that, at long last, he has found love -- of a sort. The song is "Somebody's Fetish," in which Merritt announces the discovery that "nothing's so weird that nobody does it."

"Everyone tickles somebody's fancy / From 23rd Street down to Delancey," he sings of a prime stretch of Manhattan.

On "Weird Diseases," Merritt lists his medical traumas -- "nearly fatal anal cysts, maybe Asperger's if that exists."

"Be True to Your Bar" is an ironic torch song in which Merritt exhorts tipplers to keep at it.

Merritt, who composes inside dive bars, said he had seen too many watering holes close -- but acknowledged the issue was partially self-selection.

"Bars decline all the time; I have to keep changing them. Also, I tend to like bars that are in decline, so they are short-lived."

- No fan of online music -

Merritt revisits controversy in his song for 2006 when music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, then at The New Yorker, suggested subconscious racism by Merritt over a lack of interest in black artists.

Merritt said the track, "'Quotes,'" was more broadly about his frustration at inaccurate citations, especially in the British press, after a friend voiced anger at purported comments by Morrissey.

"I have said a tiny fraction of the more interesting things that people have attributed to me," Merritt said.

In the nearly two decades since "69 Love Songs," album sales have tumbled as online music takes root. Merritt said he has given no thought to commercial prospects for "50 Song Memoir" which weighs in at five CDs or LPs.

"The only way that I know how to listen to music online is YouTube on the phone, which is kind of like asking your neighbors to play a record while you sit at home and listen to the wall," he said.

"I have a pop group, and I expect to have some sort of drum sounds on at least half of the tracks on the record. That is enough commercial consideration for me."