Stephin Merritt on the perverse art of love songs

Stephin Merritt on the perverse art of love songs

Even to those who swear off “boy-meets-girl” lyrics, love is the most obvious and most easily dumbed-down subject in all of songwriting. But Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt has counted on it as an inexhaustible, 360-degree pivot for cleverness. Last year, the always-sullen-seeming Merritt declined to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his three-CD magnum opus 69 Love Songs, yet he clearly isn’t exhausted by the subject. The new Realism addresses it, right from the first track: On “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” a narrator menaces an ex-flame with lines like “I want you crawling back to me, down on your knees, yeah / like an appendectomy, sans anesthesia.” Behind Merritt’s whopping output—and the lovely sting of even his most dry-witted tunes—is a method he describes as “scientific.” Merritt recently spoke with The A.V. Club to bat down a few assumptions about writing love songs and talk about a new one inspired by Oprah.

The A.V. Club: You’ve probably answered too many love-song questions over the past 10 years, so we’ll try not to make this too cheesy or excruciating.

Stephin Merritt: Oh, no. The more excruciating the better. Bring it on.

AVC: We’re pegging this to Valentine’s Day, even though your love songs aren’t straightforward, sappy things.

SM: You know, most love songs are not cheesy and corny. Most love songs are complaints, I think. Or about unrequited love, coming at it from some oblique angle. Only the ones that say “I love you” over and over are the cheesy, corny ones that people complain about. At least half the songs people hear in the world are love songs. I feel like my love songs, probably none of which just say “I love you” over and over again, are in the mainstream of that tradition of being a little off.

AVC: One of the lines that sticks out on Realism is on the first song, “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind”: “You can’t go around just saying stuff because it’s pretty.” Would that be a good caveat for anyone attempting to write a love song?

SM: Well, you can say whatever you want, I guess. I think “you can’t go around just saying stuff because it’s pretty” is from the mouth of a character, and certainly not my advice to anyone. You can go around just saying stuff because it’s pretty. People make their living off of doing that. So no, I don’t think it’s good advice. I think that line is from a particular situation. But I like it because it itself is pretty, and the song doesn’t make all that much sense to begin with, so it’s contradicting itself.

AVC: What are some of the big clichés you try to avoid in writing about this subject?

SM: I don’t think there are any clichés I try to avoid. As soon as I spot a cliché, I go for it. I feel like clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. They’re the tool on which you build all the rest of the song. Clichés that other people should try to avoid, I suppose, are rhyming “dance” with “romance,” or putting the word “love” at the end of a line and having to rhyme it. That’s about it. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague, otherwise you’re going to fall into trap after trap of trying to rhyme with somebody’s name. Keep it vague. That’s the T-shirt from this article.

AVC: Do you think crafting songs and narratives around love requires you to be methodical and dispassionate?

SM: Sure. Was it Shelley or Coleridge who said poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility? [Editor’s note: William Wordsworth.] You have to be scientific about it. Never try to write a song when you’re actually feeling the emotion.

AVC: Really? That seems like perverse advice.

SM: I don’t think so. Never try to do anything artistic when you’re feeling something overwhelming. It’s like driving a car: If you’re experiencing road rage, pull over.

AVC: You’ve often been rather self-deprecating about your own vocals. Does that encourage you to write songs that don’t telegraph the emotions very much?

SM: I have a deep bass voice, so you don’t want me to try and imitate the Righteous Brothers. It’s not gonna happen. It may be that my voice itself prevents me from sounding like I’m pouring out my soul, but I have no way of knowing if that’s my opinion of my voice, or my actual voice. But there is no tradition of men with deep bass voices pouring out their souls. I think it would sound ridiculous.

AVC: From a lot of your songs, especially “Too Drunk To Dream” and “Reno Dakota,” it seems you like to combine love songs with drinking songs. Why do those two things make a good pair? 

SM: I guess “Reno Dakota” directly contradicts the advice I gave earlier about trying to rhyme with somebody’s actual name. There really is a person named Reno Dakota. I just saw him at the record-release party. But his name was irresistible for the rhyming.

AVC: That’s probably the only pop song with the word “iota” in it.

SM: Hmm, yes. Possibly “quota” as well.

AVC: But what do you think makes drinking songs compatible with love songs?

SM: I write songs by sitting around in bars, so drinking songs are a little obvious. It’s surprising that I don’t write entirely drinking songs, since I am, in fact, drinking while writing the song. Drinking and love are the two principal sources of pleasure outside of music. There’s only so many sources of pleasure, really. That’s about it. Well, there are other arts as well. But none of them are as pleasurable as music, on a physical level.

AVC: On 69 Love Songs, you have songs like “Punk Love,” “World Love,” and “Experimental Music Love.” Were you trying to figure out how the clichés of love would mix with other clichés in music?

SM: Well, certainly in “The Book Of Love,” I’m exploring the way the different clichés interact. For “Punk Love,” “World Love,” and “Experimental Music Love,” I was attacking particular genres. Those genres have the most ridiculous definitions. I should’ve done “Folk Love,” but then I wouldn’t have been able to do Realism. I guess “Acoustic Guitar” is “Folk Love.” Sure, there are so many clichés in the world, especially in music, that it’s a never-ending creative font to just bring two of them together and let them interact.

AVC: Peter Gabriel covered “The Book Of Love” in a style that’s almost the opposite of a Magnetic Fields song, with a really big string arrangement. Have you heard that version?

SM: I have. He actually did it twice, and the second one is even lusher. It sounds like double string quartet and voice. 

AVC: How do you think his versions come off?

SM: I think it’s fantastic. If I could sing like Peter Gabriel, I wouldn’t have to write songs. It’s a totally different interpretation. My arrangement and recording of it is emphatically skeletal and all about the insufficiency and helplessness, whereas his sounds like he’s God singing to you about his creation.

AVC: You’ve had a lot of songs that explore different degrees of betrayal, abandonment, or absence— 

SM: Well, you can’t write anything about presence. You can’t say, “You’re here. Oh yes, here you are. You continue being here.” I think the absent lover is a major lyrical genre. I’m particularly fond of the songs of World War II, and the absent lover is probably half of them. Because everyone was off fighting the war.

AVC: You also have many songs where people are pushing love away—“Sunset City” or “I Don’t Believe You”—but also implicitly want it.

SM: Oh, yeah. Otherwise, why would they bother mentioning it? [In “Sunset City”] the person clearly actually wants to stay, but is not going to, or why talk about it? There’s a lot of internal conflict on every song on [The Charm Of The Highway Strip]. It seems to be the internal-conflict concept album, which is only incidentally about travel.

AVC: What are some angles on the love song that you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?

SM: I’m currently writing a song called “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre” in which a wife glorifies this wonderful place that everybody may as well go, because they’ve been going anyway: “My husband’s pied-à-terre / If you’ve got a strapless gown, it’s the best place in town.”

AVC: So she suspects him of cheating.

SM: She knows he’s cheating. Usually, when I sit around in bars, I get song ideas from the music playing, or the eavesdropping that I am doing. But in this case, I was sitting around in a bar, and for some reason, they were playing Oprah, the TV show starring Oprah Winfrey, and Oprah was interviewing this woman. The sound was down, so I only saw the subtitles, and she actually used the phrase “my husband’s pied-à-terre,” and that was all I needed. I was off and running. What a beautiful title, I thought. Her husband had been cheating on her with multiple women, and she only found out about it when he unexpectedly died. Which is another song idea in itself, but that’s too complicated for “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre,” so I’m keeping it for another song.

AVC: What to you is an exemplary love song?

SM: Well, there’s an Irving Berlin song, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” which is one of my favorite songs. It’s this gorgeous, elegant way of putting it. Here’s the lyric: “Be careful with my heart / It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart / It’s not the note I sent you that you quickly burned / It’s not the book I lent you that you never returned / Remember, it’s my heart / The heart with which so willingly I part / It’s yours to take, to keep or break / But please, before you start / Be careful, it’s my heart.” There’s also a verse, but nobody ever sings it.

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