3 of 5 Stars
As Stephin Merritt releases go, the concept behind this one is pretty simple: between 2003 and 2005, Merritt—founder of the Magnetic Fields—wrote the scores for three operas. Then he compiled selections from them onto a single record, named it “Showtunes,” and released it as an album. No grand, sprawling ruminations on age-old concepts (as in “69 Love Songs”); no coy word games (as in 2004’s “i”) that alternately charm and annoy the critics.
Still, this album has a lot to unpack. Director Chen Shi-Zheng, Merritt’s theatrical collaborator, builds his drama on age-old stories that, like a puzzle, simultaneously attract and deflect the audience. Unsurprisingly, the plays are all built on somewhat macabre premises: “The Orphan of Zhao” dramatizes the historic massacre of the Zhao family; “Peach Blossom Fan” is titled after the story’s central, blood-stained symbol; “My Life as a Fairy Tale” explores the “darker side” of Hans Christian Andersen’s celebrated children’s stories (which, admittedly, never lurked too far beneath the surface anyway).
Also unsurprisingly, Merritt’s songwriting creates a biting musical commentary for these stories, pairing sweet voices and upbeat melodies with tragic events and sinister intentions (witness “What a Fucking Lovely Day,” in which a villain remarks on the beauty of scheming and deception).
Instrumentation is varied—Merritt employs sounds as diverse as the autoharp, the Chinese jinghu, and the lute—but the arrangements are kept open and airy, with little trace of the synthesizers that buoy many of his other projects. As always, Merritt’s music has a simple, appealing exterior that belies the sharp conflict running beneath. “Shall We Sing a Duet?” features a pair of vocalists exchanging proclamations of love—but, as one of the singers reminds us, “one will never forget all the clichés and lies.”
Despite the oft-caustic lyrics, these songs are a pleasant listen. For longtime Merritt listeners, they won’t do much that previous Magnetic Fields albums haven’t done already and better (or 6ths albums, or Future Bible Heroes albums, or any of Merritt’s other projects), but “Showtunes” is still a solid collection of music.
If nothing else, it serves to remind us of the theatricality that has always been present in Merritt’s work. The canonical “69 Love Songs” was first inspired, after all, by Merritt’s own love of musical theater, and many of the songs on that album have the same frank narrative quality to them that these “Showtunes” do.
Lately, the only question has been whether Merritt’s songs will tell his own story, or someone else’s. While Chen’s plays seem stylistically well suited to Merritt’s own brand of satirical beauty, there is still an inherent separation between the music and its subject.
What “Showtunes” gives us is Merritt’s well-crafted soundtrack for a director’s work. It’s nice, but in the end, it only piques our interest for a story of Merritt’s own.
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