The Jolly Misanthrope

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The life story of songwriter Stephin Merritt can be told in three anecdotes: 1) A few years ago, Merritt was getting out of a cab when he was struck on the head by a hailstone the size of a golf ball. He picked up the piece of ice and put it in his freezer, where it remains. 2) As a birthday present, Merritt once decided to give himself isolation. He avoided speaking to another human being for nearly 24 hours, then ventured out to a bookstore and ran smack into his ex-boyfriend. 3) Merritt was browsing in another bookstore when he stumbled across a title by the Scottish techno duo the KLF that promised to reveal the secrets of writing a No. 1 song. He raced to an ATM to get some cash, but when he returned, the book was gone. He has been unable to find it since.

No one would choose pain, misanthropy and terrible luck as the recurring themes of a life, but Merritt has at least put his misery to excellent use. He is the great tragicomic songwriter of his age — equal parts Cole Porter and Charlie Brown — and love is his unkickable football. "Maybe it's being gay," says Merritt, "but for me, everything related to love is so awkward, it's automatically funny. Just the idea of love is embarrassing to me. It's the equivalent of singing in the street." In 1999 Merritt and his band the Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, a spectacular three-CD, genre-spanning survey that included titles like Absolutely Cuckoo and (Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy. The Magnetic Fields' new album, I (all the songs begin with the word or letter I), out May 4, has 14 more love songs that veer between tragically camp earnestness and deep romantic cynicism. On I Don't Believe You, Merritt sings: "So you quote love unquote me/Well, stranger things have come to be/But let's agree to disagree/Cause I don't believe you."

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Merritt formed the Magnetic Fields in 1990, when he was sporadically taking classes at Harvard and writing an astrology column for a Boston gay weekly under the name Madame Cheva. He does not deny that he can be "deliberately unusual." The spelling of his first name comes from an attempt to trace the origin of his junk mail. He is prone to disconcertingly lengthy pauses in the midst of even the simplest sentences. His tiny Manhattan apartment is crammed with more than 90 musical instruments, all of which he can play. He rarely socializes. "I'm not a party type," says Merritt. "I go to cafes and bars and nightclubs and sit in the corner and write songs. It is unthinkable for me to go more than a few days without writing a song." He has had to start three other bands — the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies — just to handle the compositional overflow.

Writing is where Merritt gets his kicks, and he endures the recording process. "But I don't enjoy playing live very much," he says. "I don't like being stared at for an hour and a half while I'm unable to take a trip to the loo." The Magnetic Fields (which consists of Merritt, guitarist — banjo player John Woo, drummer Claudia Gonson and cellist Sam Davol, plus occasional accordionist Daniel Handler, a.k.a. author Lemony Snicket) will tour briefly in support of I, but Merritt is increasingly focused on composing for film and theater. He wrote songs for last fall's Katie Holmes movie, Pieces of April, and has collaborated with director Chen Shi-Zheng on two avant-garde Chinese folk operas, which were staged at Lincoln Center and Los Angeles' new Disney hall. "I'm enjoying working in theater, and I would happily never sing again," says Merritt. "But I am a bit torn. All the theater work is noncommercial, which means that there's no pressure to write a hit song. But it also means that there's no pressure to write a hit song. And I like writing hit songs. They may not become hits, but that doesn't mean I don't like it."

If the world were just, any number of songs from I would break through and make Merritt a rich man. But the odds are long that songs as smart and idiosyncratic as I Don't Believe You and I Don't Really Love You Anymore ("True, I'd give my right arm/To keep you safe from harm/And, true, for you I'd move to Ecuador") and I Wish I Had an Evil Twin ("I wish I had an evil twin/Running round doing people in") could make it onto contemporary pop radio. "One day maybe I'll write the theme to a popular movie, and it'll become a hit," he says. "Or not. I haven't had all that much luck so far. I've pretty much had to get by on hard work. But statistically I'm bound to experience some actual luck one of these days." If he could just find that book.