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In conversation, singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, whose innumerable musical projects include the Magnetic Fields, takes deliberation to extremes. He reacts to most questions with a lengthy pause, and if the phrasing of a query doesn't meet his standards for precision, he'll pick it apart like a slightly dyspeptic linguistics professor rather than answer it directly. Nonetheless, his soft-spoken, dauntingly formal demeanor can't entirely mask an arid sense of humor. When asked to describe his average fan, for example, he says, "I have no idea. I only know the people who I see in the front row at concerts, and they always seem to be the same: 21-year-old straight white boys who aren't smart enough to sit farther back from the speakers and don't mind being spat upon by the singer."
Fortunately for them, Merritt isn't the type of performer likely to gob admirers by way of a thank-you for their patronage. His great expectorations are apt to be inadvertent -- the unintentional by-product of lyrics whose erudition and wit sometimes seem to require more limber lips than he possesses. Take "I'm Tongue-Tied," from i, the first Magnetic Fields release in five years and a concept album of sorts, since all fourteen of the lovely airs it contains start with the title letter. Against a musical backdrop that juxtaposes a Tin Pan Alley melody with subtly off-kilter instrumentation, Merritt wraps his uncertain baritone around a series of self-deprecating lines: "I mumble some jumble/You kiss me, I'm hist'ry/I'm tongue-tied and useless again."
This charming confessional implies that Merritt is singing about himself, as do i songs such as "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," the rare ditty that makes specific mention of his sexual preferences, and "It's Only Time," a cello-drenched number that concludes, "Why would I stop loving you/A hundred years from now?" But Merritt denies that he's writing musical diary entries.
"I don't care if people think it's all autobiographical," he insists. "But when answering questions about the autobiographical qualities, I'm not going to lie and say that it is. Because the moment I do that, it opens a whole lot of questions, like, 'In what way is it autobiographical?' And I don't want to get into that."
When it's suggested that naming his latest CD after a certain first-person pronoun may have only fueled such assumptions, he points out that i is printed in the lower case, as if his choice of typography should make his intentions clear to anyone with a brain larger than a kumquat. Likewise, he disputes the notion that writing in the second or third person might have created some additional distance between himself and his tunes in the minds of listeners. "Why would that make it seem less autobiographical?" he wonders. "It's like haiku, which is often phenomenally autobiographical -- but there's only so much you can say about yourself in seventeen syllables."
Merritt treats each vowel and consonant with care. Although he tends to stick with the music he writes over the long haul, he often revises his lyrics time and time again. According to him, the gestation period for i's "Infinitely Late at Night," a woozy shuffle that amusingly captures the mood of an endless evening, stretched over a decade. "I probably went through ten different versions of the lyrics," he says -- so many that just about all that remains of the first draft is the ditty's name.
Such meticulousness hasn't rendered Merritt any less prolific. Since 1990, when the Magnetic Fields' debut appeared, he's issued recordings under an array of monikers, including the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies, who are credited with scoring five audio books in the children's series dubbed A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Daniel Handler, who plays accordion on the 1999 Fields opus 69 Love Songs, writes the Events volumes under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket.) More recently, Merritt worked on The Orphan of Zhao and Peach Blossom Fan, a pair of Chinese operas, for director Chen Shi-Zheng. The music he put together for the first of these projects features "autoharp and pipa and jinghu, which are the Chinese equivalents of banjo and fiddle," he says. "It's sort of the Chinese version of the Carter Family, so it's been called Œcountry-and-Eastern,' which I can't imagine could ever become a bona fide genre."
If Merritt scoffs at the sort of categorization engaged in by the typical music journalist, at least he does so from a position of knowledge. He occasionally writes album reviews for publications such as New York-based Time Out and displays strong opinions about pop across the spectrum. At one point, he maintains that he'd rather listen to a satellite-radio station that plays nothing but Elvis Presley tunes 24 hours a day than be subjected to one that concentrates on a single genre because "Elvis was pretty wide-ranging. For every 'Love Me Tender,' there's a 'Yoga Is as Yoga Does' [a curio from the soundtrack to the forgettable 1967 flick Easy Come, Easy Go]." Not that he'd date the beginning of the rock-and-roll era to Presley's first Sun Records sessions, which took place in 1954, as Rolling Stone magazine recently did. Instead, he prefers the week in mid-1955 when "Rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley & the Comets, became rock's first number-one single following its inclusion in the film Blackboard Jungle. As for hip-hop, which a VH1 documentary recently declared to be thirty years old, he can see the rationale for pinning its age to the first rap number-one (sort of), Blondie's 1981 smash "Rapture." Of such theories are music-geek arguments born.
In the meantime, Merritt seems proud that his work with the Magnetic Fields and his other incarnations defies pigeonholing. "As long as it takes more than two words to describe the music," he says, "I feel like I've done my job."