“A melody is like a pretty girl/Who cares if it’s the dumbest in the world?”. So sings NY crooner-songwriter Stephin Merritt, in mock sexist parody of Irving Berlin. In which case, welcome to Stephin‘s exorbitant harem of the beautiful, idiotic, sly and deranged.
Merritt sings like Leonard Cohen drowning in mud and, as ownership of a chihuahua called Irving indicates, he is certifiably fascinated with songcraft. After five cult albums which gained Lou Reed and Brian Wilson as fans, plus side-projects as Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths and The Gothic Archies, the depressive eccentric now fully tests the claim that he’s ‘the greatest songwriter of his generation’.
The idea of writing 100 love songs came while lolling in a gay piano bar listening to Stephen Sondheim. This ‘grandiose’ triplex of a mere [I]soixant-neuf[/I] tunes is the practical alternative.
In the hands of someone less witty and schizoid, a near three-hour epic would be unforgivable, but Merritt at play is frequently magical. Previous works have given him college/indie rock kudos (Lou Barlow joined in with The 6ths), but he now professes disdain for indiedom. Thus ’69…’‘s spectrum ranges through Jimmie Rodgers, Yazoo-ish synth-pop, Irish jigs, minuets, Gilbert And Sullivan, Johnny Cash parodies, Cole Porter tributes and punk spurts, all given DIY settings of banjo, cheap synths and strings and tinctured with guest singers – Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute, LD Beghtol and manager/keyboardist Claudia Gonson.
Like a genius mathematician for whom the puzzle is everything, Merritt tests himself and his audience song by song. So opener ‘Absolutely Cuckoo’ backs light verse with sputtering ukulele and is followed by gloom-soaked piano waltz ‘I Don’t Believe In The Sun’, which is worthy of Nick Cave. Or he’ll bore you with tossed-off synth pop, overdo the gimmick tunes and then pull it all back with the stunning Walker Brothers-flavoured anthem ‘Parades Go By’.
Of course there’s a broader than Broadway streak of camp in ’69…’ giggling behind the Paul Simon-in-drag township popster ‘World Love’ – and rhymes that skip from the banality of “dancing/entrancing” to the arch bookishness of (Swiss linguist) “Ferdinand De Saussure/I’m not so sure” place him firmly on the Neil Hannon side of the lyrics church.
As the references pile up – The Carter Family, The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector, the Velvets, Abba, Elvis – ’69…’ takes on psychological resonance. Behind the songs, Merritt is the maestro, bored with his own brilliance, digging into his single-parent childhood of ’60s pop and pre-war songs as an excessive joke on himself. It doesn’t diminish his ability to summon up something like the glorious country song ‘Sweet-Lovin’ Man’ (a surefire global Number One for Cher), it just makes it all the more fascinating.
An American Jarvis gone into overdrive; a Morrissey of romantic Americana – if he isn’t the greatest songwriter of his generation, he’s most certainly the greatest sponge.