Tuesday, December 26, 2000
So, the reason I want to buy 69 Love Songs is perhaps a bit because of the hype, and perhaps because if it's the last Magnetic Fields album I buy, at least I'll feel like I've heard enough to be sure. Basically, Stephin Merrit frustrates me. The only Magnetic Fields album I have is Holiday, an album that I feel I could almost love it, yet somehow don't. Theoretically, it's an album designed for me: glowing pop songs artfully constructed out of austere synth drones, combined with peerless lyrics from Merrit. But despite that it does almost nothing for me, and listening to it all the way through is a challenge. Why persist, then? Because I find the other Merrit album I own, Future Bible Heroes' Memories Of Love, to be absolutely adorable - one of the most artfully constructed pop albums I've ever heard.

Memories Of Love is often dismissed as Merrit's most pop-focused work, and criticised for being too sugary and self-consciously stuck in the eighties. In the context of what Merrit's tried to achieve throughout his career, that hardly sounds like a criticism to me, but I reckon it's untrue anyway. Of course Memories Of Love does have some of Merrit's best pop moments - see the yearning "Lonely Days", or the bubbly "Blond Adonis", or the aching chorus of "But You're So Beautiful" - and Chris Ewan's intricate, synth-laden arrangements are as retro as any in Merrit's backcatalogue. But Chris Ewan's production also makes the album for me; his idea of "retro" is so layered and precise that it ends up being futuristic.

"Blond Adonis" has a jaunty electro rhythm that snaps and crackles like Plaid or Autechre - take off the vocal and you could release it on Warp Records. "She-Devils Of The Deep" is even more bizarre - a latinesque lurch through squawking samples and sudden bass-drops; "A You You Never Knew" matches sickly-sounding strings and a trebly, whooping rhythm track that alternately reminds me of The Beta Band or Destiny's Child's "Perfect Man". Hearing these tiny glimpses of modern music nestled among music that is defiantly dated makes for constantly startling listening, and when so much black American music similarly attempt to mix an eighties-style electronic approach with the digital innovations of the last few years (see particularly albums by Kelis and Outkast), Memories of Love sounds like an eerily prescient response on behalf of alt-pop. Which is fantastic, because no-one else seems to have noticed the rich, verdant fields that r&b and hip hop have left open for white artists to exploit.

What I like most about the music on Memories of Love however is not its actual sound so much as its sense of range, which has as much to do with Merrit's brilliant songwriting as Ewan's arrangements. For despite the presence of some sterling pop moments, a sizable amount of the album is made up of muted, atmospheric numbers that are simply beautiful. "Death Opened A Boutique" features Merrit in typically brilliant comic form (eg. "Open seven days a week/it was Derrida and chic"), but his low murmer rides on a thrilling minor keyboard ripple, shimmering organs, tribal grunts and a fluid, watery rhythm track. The tracks sung by Claudia Gonson are even more bizarrely ethereal: "You Pretend To Be The Moon" is a tearjerker par excellence, with sudden, heartbreaking keyboard chord-changes and graceful cello pizzicatos, while closer "You Steal The Scene" borders on world-beat ambience, smothered in floating synth vapour.

What these tracks resemble is not so much the minimalist pop of the Human League or New Order (Merrit's general synth-pop touchstones) but the experimental, ambitious studio-bound art-pop of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Jane Siberry and (at a stretch) Eno's work with David Byrne. I reckon that these artists, quite respected at the time, have now come to represent the last sector of eighties music not to be redeemed as at least quirkily fashionable. Not that such a critical acceptance is necessarily desired - how many cultural elites would like A Flock Of Seagulls in any way that was not ironic? - but these artists seem particularly likely to be left out of the current rock discourse. Arguably the "true" eighties that American and British critics alike have long celebrated is a continuum tied to a sort of arty, always-fashionable minimalism (from Wire to Husker Du to The Pixies to rock's commercial resurrection with Nirvana), and I admit with good reason; the existence of such artists is another reason to ignore the constant cringing that always comes with discussions of the eighties.

I guess the safety with minimalist music of any type is that it's not predisposed towards musical excess that might tie it too uncomfortably to the time of its creation. So maybe the current batch of maximalist, osentatious artists so loved by our media (Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Grandaddy, Radiohead in OK Computer guise) will be in the future condemned for being as representative of a sort of turn-of-the-century arrogance and melodramatic self-aggrandisement as Bush and Gabriel are for mid-eighties ambition and cultural imperialism. And how will the maximalist dance and pop music I love so much fare, I wonder? Who knows, but I know that whether I like it or not, I don't want to see artists, styles and movements stricken from the records simply because their ideas are out of step with the ideas of the time - I don't care much for Peter Gabriel one way or the other, but I love The Hounds Of Love and The Walking, regardless of their current standing. I love The Future Bible Heroes not least for seeming to share that sentiment.


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