THE MAGNETIC FIELDS with ANDREW BIRD at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre (427 Bloor West), Friday and Saturday (July 2 and 3). $25. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Magnetic Fields brain trust Stephin Merritt harbours a secret desire to be a Teen Beat pin-up. This will come as a blow to many among his cult fan base who revere the man behind the Fields' fey synth 'n' strings ballads, the electro-pop irony of the Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies' bubble-gum goth.
In high-concept outings like the Magnetic Fields' three-disc 69 Love Songs opus, he exploited the repetitive romantic tropes of contemporary pop to come up with 69 bizarro and wryly heartfelt modern-day sonnets. The release snagged him a reputation as one of the best left-field pop songwriters around.
But like many geniuses, Merritt has a gossip-fuelled rep for being, well, a hard nut to crack. Legends surround his reluctance to do interviews (he's known to be a master of the putdown when he does agree to them), and one rumour had him wishing only gay people listened to his music.
You'd think Merritt's the type who'd crap all over the celebrity image machine and its Britneyfied products, right? Wrong.
"I'd love to be Duran Duran and have enormous visual flair and a myth-making process," he states in his trademark baritone from Manhattan. "I like theatre, and most popular music is more theatrical than the Magnetic Fields. For the next record we should start by picking out costumes - dress like the Residents, act like Britney Spears, do interviews like Madonna.
"We could invite a lot of journalists to our press actions, and a few good actors. The actors could behave like rabid fans and whip the journalists into a frenzy through peer pressure. I don't know why we've never done it before."
The Magnetic Fields' clever-clever pop masterpieces inspire a lotta love from both fans and the jaded music critterati. Too much love. As a result, some journalists - "young journalists," offers Merritt - fetishize the artist by confusing him with his output.
"Stephin Merritt is not a piece of music," he sighs. "You know - 'How horrible! What an asshole he is!'"
Merritt is really frickin' smart. We're talking book smart. He's a film studies grad with a complex enough understanding of semiotics to write a tune about hypothetically killing semiotics godfather Ferdinand de Saussure.
As a consequence, he gets bored when chatting about simpler things. An innocent question about his involvement with the soundtrack for Peter Hedges's Pieces Of April can evolve into a manifesto on ill-advised soundtrack choices (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and why films shouldn't be treated as text.
He's more interested in talking about classic cinema and Roger Corman than about his new album - his first for Nonesuch after releasing earlier material with North Carolina indie Merge. It's called i. Where earlier albums drew on specific themes like love or escapism, the tunes on the Fields' seventh disc are loosely connected by a single letter.
"I started out trying to make a soft rock record that had no concept other than the soft rock," explains Merritt. "And more than half the song titles had to do with the letter 'i.' So I threw out the ones that didn't and ended up with my quote-unquote concept. Of course, it's more of a joke. It's almost the most pathetic possible concept. And for the next album I'll think of something even more pathetic."
It may not have the instantaneous in-joke gratification of 69 Love Songs, but i is arguably stronger musically, featuring live instrumentation and lovely arrangements in place of Merritt's twee synth noodling. There are songs that suggest forgotten snippets from a Gilbert & Sullivan musical alongside others that could have escaped from New Order's closet, and the lyrical knife-stabs are darkly hilarious.
Merritt's writing talent is undeniable, which is probably why people are drawn to cover his tunes. What about Kelly Hogan's cover of Papa Was A Rodeo (Merritt's Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazlewood tribute) on the Pine Valley Cosmonauts' Beneath The Country Underdog (Bloodshot) disc?
"I think it might've come out before my version did. Apparently, she saw us play it live, and somebody must've been taping the show. I should call her up and find out, shouldn't I? 'Hi, it's Stephin Merritt, and I'm just wondering how you managed to cover Papa Was A Rodeo before I did. '"
Technically Hogan's cover came out a few months after 69 Love Songs, so Merritt's a bit off. But he should really call her up for a chat. I mean, the cover's fairly sincere, so I don't think she's pissing all over the song.
"Yeah, but she changed the genders in the tune. That's not something I would've done in that particular song. It takes away the central joke. Oh, well."