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Building the Stephin Merritt Songbook: The Sixths' Hyacinths and Thistles and Future Bible Heroes' I'm Lonely (And I Love It) (Merge)

by Dave heaton

The monumental 69 Love Songs, by far my favorite release of last year, pushed Stephin Merritt up another level in his path toward writing as many pop songs about love and loneliness as one person can write. That 3-CD set achieved more critical and commercial success than he's had thus far, but the hype doesn't seem to be slowing him down one bit. He's recently added two more fine works to his discography, the second Sixths album and a new Future Bible Heroes EP. The former has been long in the works (to be fair, I believe it was pretty far on its way to completion before 69 Love Songs came out) and has been anxiously awaited by fans of the fantastic first Sixths album, Wasps' Nests. Hyacinths and Thistleshas not only a tongue-twisting title and Merritt's songwriting in common with the first; this one also features a different "celebrity" singer on each song. This time around, he's gone not just to modern-day "indie" musicians (like Momus, Miho Hatori, Sarah Cracknell) but also to some 1980's synthpop heroes (Marc Almond, Clare Grogan, Gary Numan), a pair of 1960's idols (Odetta, Melanie), a pair of late 80's/early 90's college radio staples (Bob Mould, Sally Timms) and others.

Lately Merritt's often compared to Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, and in a way those are fitting comparisons, because of not only his prolific songwriting habits, his lyrical themes and the fact that he uses other vocalists, but also his theatrical bent (especially recently) and wit. "Waltzing Me All The Way Home," sung by Melanie, gives away Merritt's own intention to follow in these famous footsteps right from the start; the song begins with a sung preface before going in to your usual verse/chorus/verse pattern, in a way similar to that of the authors of standards. Merritt also has a great knack at writing really sad songs about real people in real-life situations but adding a dose of glamour and imagination straight of a musical. Witness, for example, how many of his songs talk about dancing, the weather, pianos, the sun and the moon and other romantic symbols. Beneath all of his songs lies a genuine sense of humor; it was made more obvious on much of 69 Love Songs, but is present on all of his albums. He has a knack at never letting on whether he's just sympathizing with the characters he sings about, or laughing at them. The truth, of course, is that he's nearly always doing both, and doing such in a way that always illuminates something about the universal human experience, and how funny it is, really.

After Wasps' Nests, some of the involved musicians came out to complain that Merritt was an eccentric control freak who hired people to sing his songs but then made them sing just like him. I'm sure that criticism could be aimed just as easily at this album. Many of the singers, especially Mould and Momus, sound really imitative of Merritt's singing style. Yet in a way this is one of the most compelling facts about the Sixths albums. It's interesting to hear Bob Mould sing a song so different from his usual ground, in a way so different from his usual style of singing. It's an odd experiment, maybe, but a rewarding one.

But of course the real attraction to this CD is Stephin Merritt's fabulous songs. Like 69 Love Songs and, indeed, just about any Merritt release, Hyacinths and Thistlesincludes songs from every point in the life of a romance, from come-on ("He Didn't") to infatuation ("You You You You You") to love ("Just Like a Movie Star" ) to goodbye ("As You Turn to Go") to crying in your beer afterwards ("I've Got New York"). Of course, a come-on in a Stephin Merritt song isn't the same as in, say, a Brittany Spears song. The gorgeous piano ballad "He Didn't," sung in an uncharacteristic crooner voice by Bob Mould, betrays the knowledge that things will inevitably fall apart in the end: "It'll end in tears, but not for years, would you dance with me?" Hyacinths and Thistlescontains songs that would musically fit right into 69 Love Songs, synth-heavy songs that have the sound characteristic of his pre-Love Songs work and a number of songs that nod back to the electronic new wave pop of the 1980's.

I'm Lonely (And I Love It) hearkens even more to the music of the 80's, as all Future Bible Heroes releases do. Future Bible Heroes uses music by Chris Ewen instead of Merritt, though the songs are still penned by him. This EP is a quick one, with one absolutely unnecessary song, yet another remix of "Hopeless" (a song that has now appeared on just about every release that bears the Future Bible Heroes name, including their debut full-length Memories of Love, the Lonely Days EP and the Red Hot and Bothered AIDS benefit compilation). The title track is a totally 80s dance track with lyrics that are so Merritt, about feeling so lonely and sad that you're "dancing on air." The other three (non-"Hopeless") songs are just as 80's keyboard-heavy and just as good, especially "Good Thing I Don't Have Any Feelings," a sad song about being left behind, sung perfectly by Merritt in his best baritone. Both Hyacinths and Thistlesand I'm Lonely (and I Love It) add more songs to Merritt's ever-growing catalogue. On both releases there are some instant classics, songs to hold right next to anything from his previous albums. The Sixths' album is probably the more essential of the two, as fitting the LP format, but both deliver more of what Stephin Merritt is doing so well these days: instantly classic pop songs about people and how they treat each other, the universal theme.

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