Hopeless romantic

The merits of Magnetic Fields' frontman Stephin Merritt

Songwriter Stephin Merritt — better known under one of his many aliases, including Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, Gothic Archies and the 6ths — makes the writing of pop melodies seem effortless. Take, for example, Merritt's 1999 collection 69 Love Songs, which, as the title suggests, was made up of 69 songs spread across three CDs with duds being few and far between. Ask around and you'll hear stories of Merritt sitting with his dog in gay bars such as Dick's in New York's East Village, where he scribbles away in his notebook, creating three tunes a day during his most prolific phase.

At five feet and an inch or two, Merritt is the modern definition of consummate tunesmith, writing in a myriad of musical styles (rock, show tune, new wave, country, punk). He calls this eclectic mix "the variety show," and his albums consist of strapping the variously styled songs together with a loosely themed binding.

The Magnetic Fields' latest is called i, because all the song titles start with "I", i.e., "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin," "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," "I Don't Really Love You Anymore," and "In An Operetta."

"My records are like radio shows, the type where it doesn't matter what genre gets played," says Merritt, walking his dog while picking up a pack of American Spirit cigarettes. "I do know, however, that it's really irritating to have to put on a record every three minutes. [I] DJed recently, and I can say that short songs are a killer."

The new album draws further from his seemingly bottomless musical well. He replaces many of the synth elements of earlier recordings with acoustics — cello, piano, harpsichord, ukulele, banjo and sitar, among other instruments.

Merritt's singing has also improved. He endearingly strains on the collection of acerbic yet poppy songs about the many pursuits of hopeless romantics. There are contemplations on the lovelorn and aging, all set to lilting beats.

You get the sense that Merritt is more interested in writing about situations than creating personality studies, though at least one of the new songs is named after a person. "I don't really feel the songs can support characters. They're too vague," says Merritt. "Even if the songs have a character's name, like 'Irma,' it's not much of a character. All we know is she likes chocolate more than her father."

Although he's an openly gay man, Merritt is unconcerned with addressing politics in his music. He asserts that he said all he needed to say on 69 Love Songs. One cut from the set, "World Love," for instance, is an unforced celebration of dancing and freedom.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why his music has such wide appeal. Merritt's first and foremost concern is love. He pairs sometimes cliched emotional images (centered around the heart, mirrors, oceans, the book of love, etc.) with grandiose arrangements. It makes for prismatic music that shifts convincingly between the figurative and literal with no regard to picking sides.