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Album Review

Showtunes, indeed. This is a stretch for fans of Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, or the 6ths. In fact, Showtunes is a stretch for fans of Stephin Merritt, period, but a welcome one. The 26 songs that make up this collection are culled from three collaborative productions between Merritt and Chinese theater director Chen Shi-Zheng. Merritt wrote the music and lyrics to The Orphan of Zhao, written in the 13th century and adapted by Chen Shi-Zheng in 2003. It was performed in 2003 at the Lincoln Center Festival. The Peach Blossom Fan was produced in 2004 and performed at Rand and Edna Disney/Cal Arts in Los Angeles, and My Life as a Fairy Tale, based on the life and stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and also performed at the Lincoln Center Festival. The last of these offered not only Merritt songs, but his sound design as well. While music here has less than nothing to do with rock & roll, it is also unmistakably Merritt. Those of you who admire the man's wit, his tender if brutal honesty, and his brilliance in marrying music to his peculiar use of language will be enchanted because of its uncanny synchronicity despite unusual instrumentation throughout. In fact, the listener is asked to make a huge jump here. You are asked, basically, to forget the productions these songs originate from, and hear this as an album: a Stephin Merritt album. Certainly there is the arresting cover, the short summations of the plays themselves, and the scant illustrations in the package; but nonetheless, other than the opening instrumental "Theme from "The Orphan of Zhao," which is done on auto harp, pipa, and jinghu, as a dead-giveaway, the whole set comes off as startling. The way the album is arranged — the songs are interwoven, not sequenced according to production — offers the first real proof that this is, in fact, really a Merritt album. The instrumentation across the board is unusual — particularly on the tunes from My Life As a Fairy Tale, which is scored for Stroh violin, marimba, yanquin, and steel drums, and includes vocalists Blair Brown and Fiona Shaw. The dramatic flair of these tunes nods to the black humor and truly ironic world view of a man possessed by the spirit of Oscar Wilde — even more than usual. These pieces, almost to a tee, are full of dry wit and an acerbic tongue. Check out "The Top and the Ball" (from My Life As a Fairy Tale), "What a F*cking Lovely Day" (Orphan of Zhao), and "Sorry Wrong Show" (Peach Blossom Fan) for quick evidence. As for the singers, there are loads of surprises here, particularly on this last tune, where Dudley Klute is almost a deadringer for Nick Cave! On "The World Is Not Made of Flowers," (Orphan of Zhao), Jenny Bacon sings with an iconic yet convincing dramatic flair for Merritt's searing lyric: "Though I will be your judge and jury/crushing your skull won't quell my fury...If you smell a bullet/passing through your nose/red as a rose/Let it be mine....And while my anger still increases/I'll piss on all your little pieces." An achievement of Merritt's adapting his lyrics for the theater is in the economy of language; the excesses are carried by the music and the singers, rather than in the words. They are tight, spare, and more often than not, hilarious while still communicating the raw softness of the human heart. One can almost hear this as a reject from the 69 Love Songs material. Ultimately, this set may confuse and perhpas even infuriate some people. And then, of course, there are the rest who will be delighted, puzzled, and intrigued by the sheer originality of this recording. Showtunes is a step forward, a brave leap into art — that remains popular art — by one of the most mercurial and enigmatic songwriters out there.


Born: 17 January 1966

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Best known as the mastermind behind the Magnetic Fields, singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt has juggled multiple projects throughout his career, releasing a string of acclaimed albums with the Magnetic Fields while also working as a solo artist, a magazine journalist, and a member of several different bands. Raised by his countercultural mother, he spent much of his youth moving from house to house throughout the Northeast. It was during that time that Merritt became enamored with Top 40 pop, specifically...
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Showtunes, Stephin Merritt
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