Ethan Frome. What a terrible book. Edith Wharton's bleak novella tells the tale of its doomed titular "hero," who, in an effort to do the right thing, marries Zeena, the woman who nursed his mother on her deathbed. He then falls in love with Zeena's cousin, Mattie, and after considerable trials and tribulations, Ethan and Mattie ultimately realize they can never experience love as it is truly meant to be. So they decide to end it all — by riding their sleigh (how very New England) into a sturdy elm.
Except they don't die. Ethan is crippled and Mattie is paralyzed, so they are forced to live off the graces of Zeena, princess shrew. That's the icing on the cake of torment they'll be eating for the remainder of their miserable lives.
Terrible, terrible book. You might've read it in school, though certainly not after, because no one would read Ethan Frome if he or she didn't have to. Except for Stephin Merritt, principal figure of Magnetic Fields and at least three other indie-pop bands in various stages of undeadness.
"I used to read it every year on my birthday," he says. "It's 99 pages long. Perfect for birthday reading."
Ethan Frome. On his birthday. Every year.
"As setting, it can't be beat," he continues. "It expresses everything about how horrible New England is."
I attempt to protest, because too much here is truly not enough. For the moral of Ethan Frome instructs that if you yearn for more, you will end up crippled (quite literally, if you own a sleigh) for the rest of your life.
"Yeah," Merritt says, near-giddy with misanthropic glee. "For the rest of your life."
Like a dowager's perfume, the reputation of Stephin Merritt as interview subject precedes him. It has been suggested by critics that the "diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual" Merritt is "rude," "grouchy," "depressed," "prickly," and/or "nasty." And yet he is nearly as acclaimed for his songwriting acumen as condemned for his asocial demeanor; one Seattle writer recommended the now-bicoastal melodist be given the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the "Genius Grant"), so prodigious is his songwriting skill. "Well, it's no good saying it in print," Merritt deadpans.
Yes, "deadpans." Let it be known that "says" doesn't do the trick here. During an hour's conversation, Merritt occasionally "intones." On a few rare occasions, he "asks." But, my God in heaven, the man's deadpan skills are consummate — raising an eyebrow, looking askance, or adopting a skeptical (if not outright suspicious) glare. But in case you missed it, somewhere inside Merritt's luxurious self-loathing is one bone-dry sense of humor. Which is just one of the reasons his songs are so appreciated.
On Distortion, the Fields' eighth record, Merritt's outlook hasn't improved, judging by such lines as "Sober, life is a prison" and "I have planned my grand attacks/I will stand behind their backs/With my brand-new battle ax." Witness a hatred so vital to "California Girls" that it serves as the chorus, an ample dose of holiday self-pity in "Mr. Mistletoe," and even a postulant's petition to perform as a prostitute and Playboy Bunny in "The Nun's Litany." But this time, Merritt's output is dressed in the wired wistfulness of grunge via Velvet Underground clothing. Which is a matter of style in more ways than one. "That's the whole point of it," he says, "taking a random sampling of songs and subjecting them all to the production style of Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy."
The Jesus and Mary Chain is a longtime Merritt favorite, and yet he has caught none of the Reid brothers' reunion shows: "I can't go to rock concerts anymore." The villain here is the singer's self-diagnosed struggle with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes loud, shrill noises exceedingly unpleasant — like, say, the ever-present guitar feedback screeching through Distortion. The affliction compelled the album to be mixed "at low volumes," Merritt notes. "And that's why there are two other people doing the mixing as well."
But feedback isn't Merritt's only occupational hazard. "We're playing quite small venues in an effort to try to manage the volume level," he notes of the Fields' tour. "From an audience, I find applause in a place larger than 35 people really quite awful." Which, from a man whose songwriting saunters between self-loathing and misanthropy, is a response that covers more than one question.