REVIEW: Strange Powers Takes On Myths, Methods and Music of Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields
A smart, sophisticated songsmith in the tradition of Cole Porter, or an inscrutable, pretentious twit? In the course of his near-20-year career, Stephin Merritt -- the sort-of frontperson for the indie-rock collective Magnetic Fields -- has been considered both. And after watching Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara's documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, you may still think he's a little of both, and that's OK. Strange Powers is a relaxed, enjoyable little documentary whose central figure emerges as a figure rendered in half-precise, half-diffuse pointillist dots: By the end, he's more charming and less self-serious than he seemed at the beginning, but he still escapes with much of his mystery intact.
Merritt and the Magnetic Fields may be best known for their three-disc 69 Love Songs, released in 1999, which is as good a sampling of Merritt's songcraft as any: His lyrics tend to be clever and deadpan, but they can also be devastatingly heartfelt; his melodies (often conceived with his longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson, a wise-cracking, truth-telling brunette) are often rhythmically complex and riddled with unusual chord changes, though they can often be strangely hummable. As a human being, Merritt has a reputation for being grumpy, a quality Fix and O'Hara capture to great effect here. They interview an assortment of Merritt's friends, fans and bandmates, nearly all of whom -- with the possible exception of Gonson, who seems to understand Merritt better than anyone on the planet -- express some mix of admiration, affection and befuddlement. Carrie Brownstein, formerly the lead guitarist for the now-defunct Sleater-Kinney and now a writer, breaks into a big, open smile and says, "He just always seems superior to everyone else!" Her demeanor is a clear tipoff that she means this as an affectionate bearcub-cuff of a compliment, not a slam.
For a short (82 minutes) documentary, Strange Powers covers a lot of territory, including a mini-controversy that the rock critic Sasha Frere-Jones stirred up a few years ago, before he was a rock critic for The New Yorker. On his personal blog, Frere-Jones called Merritt a "rockist cracker," because his music didn't show the influence of many black artists. That began a sparkstorm of criticism, which Merritt unintentionally played into when he approvingly mentioned the song "Zippety Doo Dah" -- from Walt Disney's Song of the South -- at an Experience Music Project conference in 2006. Merritt has also said that he just doesn't like hip-hop. Fix and O'Hara don't try to pass judgment on the controversy, but they show how it snowballed, unreasonably, from almost nothing. (And for what it's worth, Frere-Jones says, on-camera, that he takes responsibility for starting the whole thing and wishes he could take it all back; you can tell he means it.)
If no one knows quite what to make of Merritt, it's also true that Merritt doesn't really know what to make of himself. He explains that he writes many of his songs while sitting alone in gay bars, with a drink and a cigarette in hand and disco blaring over the speakers. That's not exactly business as usual for most songwriters, but it seems to work for Merritt. Strange Powers has been 11 years in the making, and includes lots of performance footage: Merritt's voice has, you might say, certain "limitations." A friend of mine says he makes Nick Cave sound like Mel Torme. To me, he's always sounded like a dad who can't sing, singing to his kids; what he lacks in range he makes up for in gut conviction.
Merritt and the Magnetic Fields have been around since 1991, which is barely an eye-blink in rock'n'roll years. Still, time marches on: Merritt is now nearly bald; he has sadsack eyes and a slow-burning, almost coquettish smile. He may still be a force to be reckoned with, but he's nothing to be afraid of, and Fix and O'Hara find clever ways to deflate whatever pretentiousness he may now and then fall prey to. At one point he laments to Claudia that he's not sure the number they're working on will mesh with the way he plans to sing the lyrics: "I'm not sure this is going to fit with the expressionless Bresson character I'm doing." At that point, the camera cuts to Merritt's pet chihuahua, blinking at the camera and using his translucent ears as a set of hypersensitive cuteness-channeling devices. So much for Merritt's hifalutin homage to Bresson; he knows when the spotlight has been stolen by a creature who's more adorable and more charming than he is.