Album: Stephin Merritt

Pieces of April, Eastwest/Nonesuch
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The Independent Culture

There is some truth to the contention that the art of the love song has been in decline since the days of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. These days, it has become a thoroughly debased form, wallowing in mawkish melodrama when it is not actually descending into brute pornography, and with diminishing pertinence to the realities of human interaction.

The trouble is, relationships just do not operate according to the clichés of modern love songs, in which hyperbole masks the more perplexing questions posed by emotions. Which is why Stephin Merritt, the prolific bard of lower Manhattan, is such an important figure in modern pop - perhaps the last songwriter to depict love as it really is, in all its myriad shades and tempers, illuminating the subject with elegance and wit. His magnum opus is The Magnetic Fields' awesome three-CD set 69 Love Songs, Merritt pursuing his quarry down 69 disparate alleyways, a journey ultimately exposing all its associated emotional facets - hope, joy, anger, ecstasy, comedy, futility, regret, respect, bitterness, despair - you name it, it is in there somewhere.

The soundtrack to Peter Hedges' film Pieces of April, this more concise assemblage of old and new material offers a compact confirmation of Merritt's lyrical abilities. His rhyming is a wonder to behold: not since Dylan's Blonde on Blonde have adverbs been as effortlessly yoked together as "recently" and "decently" are in "You You You You You", while the syntactical precision of lines such as "All I want to know is, do you still want me?/ And if not so, why do you still haunt me?" has the authentic stamp of Irving Berlin. More impressive is the panache with which he rescues apparently doomed conceits, as if setting himself problems just for the sport of it: "Heather/ You're like the weather," begins one chorus, "All mist and air/ But always there."

Compared with the fulsome urgency of most love songs, Merritt's are marked with the qualification and compromise of authentic insecurity. "My car is ugly/ But then, I'm ugly, too," he confesses in "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side", while elsewhere a relationship on the skids is neatly, summed up with "She don't believe in his dreams any more/ And what's more, she's probably right". The lugubrious baritone in which Merritt delivers his songs is as pleasantly outré as his crafted lyrics, and perfectly suited to the yearning quality of songs such as "All I Want To Know" and "Epitaph for my Heart".

The arrangements, too, are quirky and distinctive, favouring the naive tones of ukulele, toy piano, zither and mandolin, with the deeper shades of harmonium, cello and organ casting their own pall where appropriate. The result is a mature and endlessly fascinating work which helps restore a little dignity to a sorely abused form.