Picture a rumpled Cole Porter working on low-fi gear in his garage, and you’ll get a rough idea of the oeuvre of Stephin Merritt. Recording with a variety of ensembles, including the Magnetic Fields, Merritt revels in rinky-dink arrangements (chintzy electronic keyboards and drum machines) as well as minutely crafted songs in which he gives himself over to crushes and obsessions with equal amounts optimism and cynicism. Not since Morrissey has anyone written droll post-breakup commentaries with titles like ”Good Thing I Don’t Have Any Feelings.”
Merritt’s most accessible work, though, is with the 6ths, which are less a band than a concept: Merritt songs performed by friends with far less glum voices than his. The first 6ths album, 1995’s Wasps’ Nests, featured indie-rock all-stars, and the equally hard-on-the-tongue Hyacinths and Thistles sports an even broader musical range. Not even VH1’s The List would dare unite such a motley musical crew. Where else can one find ex-Husker Duer Bob Mould crooning an exquisite piano ballad and ex-flower child Melanie (who sounds like a Woodstock gargoyle) singing in the voice of a poignant drunk calling her ex at 3 a.m.? Merritt also unearths another folkie, Odetta (he gets the austere singer to intone, ”You’ll find a lover who looks like your mother”), and new-wave relic Gary Numan, and both sound completely at home.
The rest of the album spans the romantic spectrum as much as it does the generational one. There’s sweetness and light in ”You You You You You,” sung by Squirrel Nut Zipper Katherine Whalen, while Sarah Cracknell offsets her lover’s departure in ”Kissing Things” by smooching tobacco and mirrors instead. Even when they’re cutesy — take ”Lindy-Lou” from Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, please — these music-box songs never overstay their welcome. The same can’t be said of the album-closing synth arpeggios that slowly fade out over 25 minutes. Blatant filler or ironic comment on the way love can dribble off? Let’s give Merritt the benefit of the doubt and say the latter. It’s more romantic that way. A-