Waxing lyrical on life and death

The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt is back on form with new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, says Ed Power

STEPHIN Merritt is singing the chorus to the 1978 disco smash Boogie Oogie Oogie. “Get on up on the floor,” he dead-pans in baritone. “We’re gonna boogie oogie oogie, ’til you just can’t boogie no more.”

The Magnetic Fields frontman is making a point about pop lyrics. He enjoys silly wordplay delivered with a wink.

“I like lyrics that are really stupid — if they let you know that they know they are being really stupid. ‘Oogie Oogie Boogie’ — no one is going to present that as their senior thesis. It’s effective and funny and isn’t pretending to be smart,” he says.

Merritt is one of the cleverest songsmiths working, a man who might have written for Broadway. His ditties pivot from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-wrenching and back again.

His talents as a lyricist are on display on the Magnetic Fields’s new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea. It is a very funny record about life and death, especially death.

The ‘great beyond’ is traditionally taboo in pop. Maybe that’s why Merritt explores it with such relish.

“Opera is about death,” he says. “Musical theatre is about death. One of the disco songs I like the most is Cobacabana. Are you familiar with that? It’s by Barry Manilow. It is a little murder mystery in the form of a disco tune.”

The Magnetic Fields’s music incorporates guitar, cello and piano, usually topped off with Merritt’s laconic croon (though he sometimes employs guest vocalists). The sound, dubbed ‘chamber pop’, is also a feature of Merritt’s myriad of side-projects.

Merritt’s other bands include The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes and The 6ths. He has written musicals, too, including a 2009 hit adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Merritt’s breakout release with The Magnetic Fields was 69 Love Songs, a hit in 1999. It is a three-disc rumination on affairs of the heart. There are tunes about unrequited crushes, tragic break-ups and one-night stands in trucker bars.

Simultaneously catchy and profound, the record made Merritt famous in alternative music circles. He has struggled to build on its success.

Before Love at the Bottom of the Sea, he released a further four Magnetic Fields long players, of varying quality. With the new record, he has gone back to his early synth-pop sound.

“I like a lot of stuff that’s synth pop,” Merritt says. “I’m a big fan of early Eurythmics, Kraftwerk. Synth pop didn’t really take off in America. Here, we had house music. It took the synth sound and put lots of churchey wailing on top. Whereas, Europeans don’t do churchey wailing very often.”

Merritt’s working methods are as idiosyncratic as his music. He composes in gay bars, often stockpiling material for years. Some of the songs on Love at the Bottom of the Sea, for instance, were written 20 years ago.

“I go to a bar every evening and write something,” he says. “My ideal bar will be someplace where older gay guys are listening to disco. People are there to socialise so the music isn’t very loud. My attention is free to wander to whatever I am working on at that moment.”

Merritt is often painted as a curmudgeon. It is a two-dimensional portrait.

In person, he’s warmer than you expect. Rather than grumpy, he seems quite shy.

Still, he can be a difficult interviewee. Merritt suffers from a rare strain of tinnitus and has difficulty hearing. When you ask a question, the words vanish into the ether and up to a minute can pass before he answers. This makes for awkward silences and unexpected interruptions.

His disability has other drawbacks, too. “Touring is difficult for me because of my aversion to loud noises,” he says. “It is not something I enjoy particularly. I do it because it is an economic fact of life that you have to. I tend not to enjoy live music.”

Merritt is a fascinating character, and inevitably someone has made a documentary about him. Two years ago, Gail O’Hara’s Strange Powers: A Portrait of the Magnetic Fields was a hit on the festival circuit. The singer has reservations about the film.

“It was very unrepresentative of my actual life,” Merritt says. “It never mentions the fact that I have three other bands or that I have written four musicals and won an Obie Award.

“It concentrates on me moving my studio to Los Angeles. It didn’t even mention that I have actually kept an apartment in New York. For the sake of a through-line, it does a lot of fudging.”

* Love at the Bottom of the Sea is out now. Magnetic Fields play Olympia, Dublin on Saturday, and Cork Opera House on Sunday.

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