[LACONIC, IRONIC TONIC] If brevity is the soul of wit, well then, we’ve found the source of Stephin Merritt’s genius and can go home to listen to our Magnetic Fields albums. Merritt, the dour composer and Fields frontman who has been called this era’s Cole Porter so many times that another comparison wouldn’t thrill him at all, saves most of his words for his songs: As an interview subject, he’s infamously terse, and celebrated for the intimidating length of his pauses. He arrives in Portland with a new record, Realism—a somewhat disappointing addition to the Fields catalog that still manages to include some delicious rhymes (“I want you crawling back to me down on your knees, yeah/ Like an appendectomy sans anesthesia”) and a song featuring both hootenannies and Facebook personality quizzes. WW spoke to Merritt last week, attempting, with mixed success, to elicit answers longer than one sentence.
WW: What’s wrong with music today?
Stephin Merritt: There’s too much of it.
Anything in particular you would scrap?
I would get rid of free downloading and peer-to-peer downloading. I would get rid of very loud grunge because I think it’s actually hurting people. If it were killing people there would be some regulation of it. But instead it's just making them deaf.
What is your writing regimen like these days?
I go sit in local gay bars and I try and write music appropriate to what I happen to be working on now, which is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
How’d that project start?
I saw the movie—the 1917 version—at the old town theater in El Segundo, Calif., being accompanied by a man playing the mini Wurlitzer they have there, which is a really delightful organ with bells and whistles and a gong and marimbas and percussion and such, and I thought, “I want to do that.” So I said yes when the San Francisco Film Society asked me to score a silent film. I said, “Yes, if it can be the 1917 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and if I can do it at the Castro Theatre with the Castro Theatre organ....”
Do the lyrics match the title cards?
No. They often undercut the title cards, in fact.
Give me an example, if you don’t mind.
I will not give you an example.
What is it that is so especially pleasant about an acidic sentiment put to a cheerful melody?
I like to think that it’s the fact you can listen to it in pretty much any mood and enjoy it. Whereas happy lyrics to a happy song you pretty much have to be in a good mood to enjoy. And an acidic sentiment to an acidic arrangement you have to be in a different mood to enjoy. So I think there needs to be a counterpoint between lyrical moods and musical ones. Ideally, both should be ambiguous.
Ambiguity is something you like?
Yes. Ambiguity is where the art part is. And what makes things memorable. A little tug.
SEE IT: The Magnetic Fields play the Aladdin Theater at 8 pm Sunday and Monday, Feb. 21 and 22. $30. All ages.