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February 19, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

See the trailer for Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, a documentary ten years in the making that's debuting at SXSW next month. Watch Merritt write a song. Listen to a one-hour concert of songs from 69 Love Songs. Read Merritt's thoughts on writing love songs.
posted by carrienation (57 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
So anyone remember the "Runt" parties he used to throw at Nowhere? Mobiles and art hung from the ceiling so anyone tall would get tangled in them.
posted by The Whelk at 9:45 AM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


And why I love The Magnetic Fields, for some reason Future Bible Heroes sticks with me more. I had this running in my head when in Venice during a huge rainstorm. Perfectly apocalyptic and moody.
posted by The Whelk at 9:48 AM on February 19, 2010


My favorite Merritt album remains The Tragic Treasury. Fifteen songs without any tension whatsoever, just playfulness and kidscarring.

While he's no longer my absolute favorite songwriter, as he was for a long time, I still admire the brutal efficiency with which he writes his lyrics. He's disciplined like few lyricists are. And he remains the first musician whose discography I bought in its entirety. Everything down to his three albums of Chinese showtunes.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:52 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everything down to his three albums of Chinese showtunes.

I-What? Damn you! Now I have to find these.
posted by The Whelk at 9:55 AM on February 19, 2010


Holy shit. Will you marry me, carrienation?

The Whelk- Were those the nights meant for shorter dudes? My old roommate (who was 6'8" or so) either went to one of those or expressed desire to. The mental image of him towering over the crowd has stayed with me forever.
posted by griphus at 9:58 AM on February 19, 2010


Rory- Were those albums ever released separately? I know they were compiled as a 'best of' on "Showtunes" (although that one was two Chinese operas albums and one European.)
posted by griphus at 9:59 AM on February 19, 2010


Yea, hense the name . Short dudes and the dudes that love them. 6'8 means he'd barely fit into Nowhere, sheesh, way to feel like you're entering the Shire's gay tavern.
posted by The Whelk at 9:59 AM on February 19, 2010


"wWay to feel like you're entering the Shire's gay tavern."

Don't talk about The Pink Dragon that way!
posted by missrachael at 10:03 AM on February 19, 2010


great post! I didn't know there was going to be a documentary!

A friend made me a tape with 100,000 Fireflies on it in 1990. Still one of my favorite songs. It wasn't until the Merge Records re-release that I could get my hands on more, and I was so glad they reissued those records.
posted by pinky at 10:04 AM on February 19, 2010


...and that's the last time I'll be able to watch the final scene of The Return of the King without laughing. Harder.

Any Mefites going to be at the March 10th show?
posted by griphus at 10:04 AM on February 19, 2010


Also: Daniel Handler talking makes everything in life better. Beyond his magnificent operatic voice, and the entire Series of Unfortunate Events, the last three books of which are close to masterpieces in how they neatly break every rule of how to tell a children's story, the novel Adverbs is one of my favorites. It's confusing the first time you read it, then you pick up on all the currents underlying each story and realize it's like a big puzzle, where you only need one piece to get a glimpse of something beautiful, and where you'll go crazy trying to fit it together.

"Love was in the air, so both of us walked through love on our way to the corner. We breathed it in, particularly me: the air was also full of smells and birds, but it was the love, I was sure, that was tumbling down to my lungs, the heart's neighbors and confidants. Andrea was tall and angry. I was a little bit shorter. She smoked cigarettes. I worked in a store that sold things. We always walked to this same corner, Thirty-seventh and what's-it, Third Avenue, in New York, because it was easier to get a cab there, the entire time we were in love."
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:05 AM on February 19, 2010


I should have previewed. On iTunes:

Peach Blossom Fan
The Orphan of Zhao
My Life As a Fairy Tale

Peach Blossom Fan and Orphan of Zhao I recommend. My Life wasn't terrible, but there weren't any tunes on it that really caught me.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:08 AM on February 19, 2010


I enjoyed the AVClub interview. "If I could sing like Peter Gabriel, I wouldn’t have to write songs." That's great.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:15 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


howtunes, a collection of 25 songs written by Merritt for three plays directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, features several of the same vocalists Merritt recruited for 69 Love Songs, and the strongest melodies Merritt has penned since that album's release. -- Matt LeMay, Pitchfork

I had no idea. Another thing to shove into my ears in preparation for seeing Magnetic Fields in a week or so.

On preview - it seems Showtunes is a culling of tracks from those three listed by Rory (more details on allmusic).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:17 AM on February 19, 2010


Fuck yes great post!
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:25 AM on February 19, 2010


omg omg omg

Strange Powers is the song I fell in love to. I have a GUT reaction to the words. I'm excited about this!!!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:29 AM on February 19, 2010


Thank you! Hadn't noticed he has a new record out. Aiming for the excruriating, Stephin Merritt doing a morning show. (I won't spoil his song choice. It's good.)
posted by Free word order! at 10:34 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, FUTURE BIBLE HEROES come back!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:35 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, FUTURE BIBLE HEROES come back!

"Blond Adonis" has been my "okay, you can deal with today" walking-to-work song for three years now. I pretend I'm singing it torch-style in a dark cabaret instead of walking down 42nd street at 8 AM.
posted by griphus at 10:39 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yay! I saw TMF last week in Toronto, they were outstanding. A great setlist which (sadly) ignored most of the 69 Love Songs crowdpleasers, but reached back all the way, covering various side projects as well. Check them out if you can on this tour, here's a nice tour blog by their merch folk.

Free word order!, that's insane. Far too much cognitive dissonance going on for me in that clip.
posted by yellowbinder at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


OH YES BETTER THAN A ZEBRA THIS IS!
posted by iamkimiam at 10:44 AM on February 19, 2010


We had a nightly ritual in our house in Somerville (Mass.) for a while that revolved around playing the Future Bible Heroes song "I'm a Vampire."

I miss my roommates.
I love Stephin Merritt.
I can't take anyone who hates the Magnetic Fields seriously.

(Except my boyfriend, and he's just being contrarian, the way he is about the Decemberists).

Best lyricist in the world, hands down.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:48 AM on February 19, 2010


bitter-girl, you need to invite me over for one of those. I put that song on my favorite mix, the MEGALOMANIAMIX.

I would sit politely until the final fade-out line "I'm a tidal wave of tarantch...."

and jump out and sing "ULAS I AM A VAMPIRE, IIiiiiiiii" and start from the beginning, because that song doesn't have to end, oh no.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:52 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


You are made of awesome, Ambrosia Voyeur. Yessssss.

Sometimes, too, "Crazy for You But Not That Crazy" gets caught in my head for DAYS on end... I performed acts of devotion, as if you were Ganesh!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:56 AM on February 19, 2010


As the stars come out ad nauseam,
Everyone stands and applauds.
Suddenly, we're all remembering
Why we needed all those gods.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:02 AM on February 19, 2010


I am spousing you SO HARD, Ambrosia Voyeur.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:11 AM on February 19, 2010


I don't really have fuckall to add to the discussion other than to say that I motherfucking love Stephin Merritt so much it just about makes me want to scream like a teenage girl and pass out. Which I'm sure he'd drily not appreciate before stalking out of the room.
posted by Skot at 11:18 AM on February 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Is this where I get to gloat about having tickets to both Bay Area shows? Yes?
posted by gingerbeer at 12:01 PM on February 19, 2010


Oh hey gingerbeer, I'll be at the Fox show. See you there!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:03 PM on February 19, 2010


Gingerbeer, did I ever tell you how funny, attractive and worldly you are?
posted by The Whelk at 12:14 PM on February 19, 2010


I believe they were filming a portion of this at one of the Austin shows I was at a few years back.
posted by ktrey at 12:32 PM on February 19, 2010


I used the lyrics to "It's Only Time" as one of the readings at my wedding, and it was awesome.
posted by kmz at 12:33 PM on February 19, 2010


kmz, I proposed to my boyfriend the morning of the show last week, and I was dying for them to play it. No luck there, but the lyrics have been running through my head for weeks and giving me a (good) chill each time. Definitely on the wedding dance list.

I'll walk your sands
and swim your seas.
posted by yellowbinder at 12:52 PM on February 19, 2010


I know for a fact we're not the only mefites who had Book of Love at their wedding.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:16 PM on February 19, 2010


Thanks for the post, carrienation!

I went to see them here in Toronto a couple of weeks ago. It was a beautiful show in many ways, but it left me sad. Merritt was extra misanthropic, and gave no impression of wanting to be there at all. It's especially difficult to applaud someone when you can see them visibly wince with pain. They played their songs - beautifully crafted, but chilly and precise - and then they packed up and left.

(It didn't help that their latest album is short on real highlights.)

The upside to the enforcedly-acoustic nature of live shows, to accomodate Merritt's bum ear, is that it forces the band to essentially cover their own songs. My current fixation is trying to find a live version of 'Falling in Love With the Wolfboy', which is a zillion times more lovely now than its synthy old self.
posted by bicyclefish at 2:14 PM on February 19, 2010


> I know for a fact we're not the only mefites who had Book of Love at their wedding.

And now you can download and listen to Book of Love for free, legally, any time you want.
posted by ardgedee at 2:59 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bounce bounce bounce, FPP gleeeeeeee. You know those rare moments when an FPP makes you insanely happy? Yes. That.

I have been absurdly fond of the Magnetic Fields/6ths/Future Bible Whatever Etc. since my friend Petra exposed me to them in her car (on cassette tape) when we were both in college. Here are some of the Laws Of Magnetic Fields In The Car:

Grand Canyon - sing along as loudly as possible, harmonizing encouraged
I'm Sorry I Love You - Bo Diddley beat on the steering wheel
Falling Out Of Love With You - in case of love life emergency, play repeatedly
My Sentimental Melody - for driving alone late at night when there's no one on the roads
Reno Dakota - sing the words "Well he's just a whore" loudly with the windows down
Washington DC - first song put on when picking up friend who's been unable to visit DC, or even the US, for two years at airport. (Thanks, Petra!)

In conclusion, Merritt and Gonson are deities, even though I wish they'd release some of the songs from Distortion without the distortion.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:54 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, I want to watch this film right now!

My husband/then boyfriend came home from the record store with a 45 of "Long Vermont Roads" in 1994, and I haven't found anything to replace it as my favorite song. "The Charm of the Highway Strip" is still my top road-trip tape. I'm having fun listening to "Realism" during my commute, but it's freaked out a few of my passengers. We are having a fucking hootenanny now, yes we are!
posted by bibliowench at 5:13 PM on February 19, 2010


I sat next to Neil Gaiman and behind Billy Corgan at the two Lincoln Center (Alice Tully Hall) performances of all 69 Love Songs, and it was So Much Awesome.

Also, I saw Neil Gaiman speak at UCLA (Royce Hall) three weeks ago and he said he hopes to finish up the musical he is writing with them this year.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by Asparagirl at 5:19 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I sat next to Neil Gaiman and behind Billy Corgan at the two Lincoln Center (Alice Tully Hall) performances of all 69 Love Songs, and it was So Much Awesome.

Asparagirl, I have never met you, and I am generally a very passive, peaceful person. However: fuck you! Fuck you for being able to type that sentence.

I saw the Magnetic Fields perform years ago, in Boston. It was right after gay marriage got legalized. Merritt asked the crowd at some point whether anyone had taken advantage of it yet, and the entire crowd applauded, because we heard "gay marriage" and immediately applauded in solidarity. He seemed very confused and just said, "Uh, I meant, people who had gotten married, not that you... approve of it." Andrew Bird opened for them, and Merritt was still the most passive performer of the evening.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 5:50 PM on February 19, 2010


2nding the 6ths. "Hyacinths and Thistles" is still some of my favorite music. Also: "Papa Was a Rodeo" from 69 Love songs is one of the best things ever written.
posted by Gilbert at 8:16 PM on February 19, 2010


My current fixation is trying to find a live version of 'Falling in Love With the Wolfboy', which is a zillion times more lovely now than its synthy old self.

They did perform this last week (Feb 11th, Wilbur Theatre in Boston).
posted by jeremias at 9:01 PM on February 19, 2010


Oops sorry, the Feb 10th date was Wolfboy.
posted by jeremias at 9:02 PM on February 19, 2010


Their song "Fear of Trains" always makes me weep a little, and I could only find covers online until now. Although, this gal does the song justice pretty well with just a harp and a great voice at her disposal. Stephin Merritt is brilliant because you can take his songs, and place them in the perspective of all sorts of people/ places, and they still work beautifully. I saw them a few years back on their Distortion tour, and one of the many cool things they did was to switch gender roles in the songs, where Stephin would do Claudia's parts and vice versa, and the songs took on a new meaning, but still had the charm of the original (Imagine Stephin singing "The Nun's Litany." I'm seeing them in LA come March, and cannot recommend their live shows enough. (This is a first post for me, so go easy please)
posted by Defender90293 at 10:56 PM on February 19, 2010


I have to ask this, because it drives me fucking insane that it's never ever ever mentioned anywhere. Did anybody else develop an obsession with the song Kings from Distant Plastic Trees? Because ever since the first time I heard it, that song gives me shivers, and it's awfully bizarre but somehow that dense sound and the hissing steam all works together; the words are uncharacteristically opaque, but that makes it even better.

I love a lot, lot, lot of Merritt, but this was the one song of his where every time I listen to it I feel a sense of wonderment. Like, how was that song written? What made him do the things he did while he wrote? Why did he never repeat that sound again? Why didn't anybody else, for that matter?

I'm hoping this is a diverse enough community that at least one person has felt that same irrational pulse of near-lust for that song, because honestly I can't find anybody else who'll admit to knowing it at all.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:28 AM on February 20, 2010


69 Love Songs is one of my favourite records and Merritt is a genius...however it seems a shame that it was considered necessary to recruit Gaiman and Silverman into a documentary about him. Has he not childhood friends, neighbours? Ex-lovers? (I imagine quite a few.) What prescient observations can Sarah Silverman make about this man? Why not Alex Ross or, hell, an articulate contemporary? Tangentially, I would pay good bucks to see Robert Pollard talking about, or to, Steven MErritt.
posted by turgid dahlia at 12:44 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


>though I wish they'd release some of the songs from Distortion without the distortion.

Pallas Athena, you're singing my song. "Reality" is kind of "Distortion" without the Distortion, but also without the surprise.
posted by acrasis at 6:17 AM on February 20, 2010


They're so comically dismal. I love them SO MUCH.

The Whelk: And why I love The Magnetic Fields, for some reason Future Bible Heroes sticks with me more. I had this running in my head when in Venice during a huge rainstorm. Perfectly apocalyptic and moody.

I've seen Future Bible Heroes live, & they're also awesome! My favorite songs: The World is a Disco Ball, I'm a Vampire, & I'm Lonely (And I Love It).


Rory Marinich: Also: Daniel Handler talking makes everything in life better.

Agreed. Did you go to one of their readings? I did, & I recorded it. (yes, gratuitous self-link) Merritt & Handler are really charming together.

It's sorely tempting to see them again on this tour.
posted by Pronoiac at 10:37 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rory:

Never heard it before, but I understand you perfectly. It's a mysterious song; it's just of itself and nothing else. A much more conventional song, "The Things We Did and Didn't Do," from 69 Love Songs, does something like that to me.
posted by argybarg at 9:12 PM on February 20, 2010


Oahu puts me in a trance in a very remarkable way. (Of course, it is 28 minutes long....) Rory, if you're not listening to TFBH and The 6ths, you ought! For techno, you can't beat The Sailor in Love With the Sea, sung by GARY effing NUMAN.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:19 PM on February 20, 2010


> the first musician whose discography I bought in its entirety.

oops, my bad for not scrolling back up.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:26 PM on February 20, 2010


And don't let's forget Marc Almond on the 6ths album as well! MARC ALMOND! And Bob Mould! For the love of god, is there anyone awesome who didn't make an appearance on Hyacinths and Thistles?

"Epitaph for my Heart" is another amazing 69LS song, while we're at it...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:40 PM on February 22, 2010


Oh wow. Stephin Merritt has hyperacusis, so who knows if this is his last tour.
posted by Pronoiac at 4:12 PM on February 25, 2010


He's always had that, it's why his shows are so tightly controlled. Audience noise is intolerable for him.
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on February 25, 2010


I didn't know that, The Whelk. I hadn't really understood this:

bicyclefish: It's especially difficult to applaud someone when you can see them visibly wince with pain.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:44 AM on February 26, 2010


Greetings to metafilter from the fifth row of the Magnetic Fields show.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:45 PM on February 27, 2010


I AM ASKME GREEN NOW
posted by The Whelk at 8:48 PM on February 27, 2010


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