Sentimental Tyranny 

Stephin Merritt Is a Big Gay Composer

FILE THIS ONE UNDER Big Gay Record--not surprising from a songwriter who publishes under the moniker Gay and Loud, but then Stephin Merritt has never been the most flamboyant of people. On the previous 6ths album, Wasps' Nests, a deliberately "indie" record upon which Merritt asked indie rock luminaries like Barbara Manning and Lou Barlow to sound deliberately bored, there was no real tiptoeing through the tulips happening. In fact, though Merritt's lyrics are always sentimental and invertedly campy, he's never actually revealed himself as a big nelly queen in his music--until now.

If you're not familiar with the 6ths, it's the Merritt (Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes) project in which he collects singers and manipulates them into delivering vocal performances to suit his every brilliant whim and fancy. Perhaps the comfortable distance of having other people deliver his lyrics has given sureness to his ambitiously toying, playful nature, enabling him to girl this one up a bit.

Bob Mould is transformed into a crooning balladeer on "He Didn't," a song wrought with homosexual longing. Though trademark Merritt cynicism abounds ("It'll end in tears, but not for years, if you'll dance with me"), the cynicism only supplements the lovelorn despair underlying the lyric, which is by no means ironic or distanced. You may recall that Mould was heroically homophobic enough to throw chairs during the recording of "Pride," the Hüsker Dü track in which he bemoans the implicit self-absorption involved in the coming¯out process of his fellow gay people. "He Didn't," needless to say, is a departure for Mould, who is the antithesis of a crooner, and also a champion of the gender-unspecific "you" pronoun in his own songwriting.

What happened to Mould that convinced him to deliver such a song without a scream or even an insinuation of affectedness? Stephin Merritt happened. It's ingenious, and very simple. Through a string of obsequiously received, and yes, outstanding albums recorded under the guises of so many different projects that it's becoming difficult to keep track, Merritt has apparently garnered so much respect that he can convince nearly anyone to do just about anything for him.

The name of this CD is Hyacinths and Thistles, and the other 6ths CD was Wasps' Nests. Say that lispy last sentence aloud three times to yourself. It's Merritt's clever joke; understandable coming from a former copy editor at Spin, who is educated in semiotics and notoriously snide in chiding the language of interviewers as they question him. He's a bitchy gay prodigy (a tyrannical brat), who happily plays with people, likely for the sheer pleasure of getting away with it.

Such brattiness appears on track seven of the CD, a charmingly restrained number performed by Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto. I can't help but wonder why Merritt has chosen to give the only Japanese performer on the CD the lyrical refrain of "Lovely Lindy-Lou." It's funny, it really is, listening to the song, waiting for baby to miss an "L," feeling an empathic surge of pride each time she determinedly nails the chorus. It's even more amusing when she falters on the word "diamond," delivered as "dy-und," and also on "really," which comes out "ree-ree."

That said, the album sublimates the giddy listener in the process. Sally Timms gives a shiver-inducing vocal performance on "Give Me Back My Dreams," one of the album's sentimental high points ("You can take my heart, it was always yours, but give me back my dreams"). The lyric is accompanied by a circa-'80s, synth-pop performance so melodically accessible it would cohere on the next Erasure album. Odetta chimes in on "Waltzing Me All the Way Home," accompanied by a lone accordion, her thick voice a stupefying old-school warble. Gary Numan and French singer Dominique immerse themselves in campy melodrama on "The Sailor in Love with the Sea" and "Just Like a Movie Star," respectively. Katherine Whalen of Squirrel Nut Zippers joins Miho Hatori in the ranks of surprisingly understated performances, exuding a breathy "You You You You You" that sounds instantly classic. In fact, the only disappointment on the CD is the Marc Almond blunder "Volcana," in which he forgets he's no longer Soft Cell's youthful tenor, while providing ample fodder for the argument that two aging queens should never be allowed in a studio together.

Hyacinths and Thistles is a bright, star-studded example of masterful songcraft and lyrical sentiment. It's also an exercise in human tyranny.

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