Here’s another glare from Stephin Merritt, and this time it’s a reminder: before this non-synth triology of nonsense was a late ’80s, early Indie band falling into the new decade with nothing but the tricks they’d been taught to survive. Tricks which they had failed at, anyway, because of Merritt himself, hands in his face and eyes rolling. It’s funny, because The Magnetic Fields would have been a big contradiction of terms– a breezy synth-pop band with a droning, insulting genius propelling them– if it wasn’t for Merritt’s attention to detail (or: attention to himself). The synthesizers of Holiday didn’t exactly sparkle for the sun shining on them, and why would they? Merritt’s never really gone for the sugary-sweet fare of twee’s higher-ups, writing a lyric like “under more stars than there are prostitues in Thailand” when he might have learned a more romantic sentiment from silliness like “la la love you.”
But Merritt is not silly. He’s like the version of himself Scott Walker sees before ghosts teach him to love Christmas, using the synthesizer as a tool to turn the theatrical into a pantomine, from the aliens-do-country road trips of Highway Strip to his definitely-ironic retelling of how people love on 69 Love Songs. He’s spoiling movies and ruining stories, and “Andrew In Drag” is a track, weirdly, in the spirit of those two records, downbeat and hysterical but told deadly serious, like the man rolling his eyes now and forever. And it’ll make sense in context, for sure, because Merritt has always made records to be records, even if at one point they were concieved for the stage as Merritt decided of Love Songs one day mooching in a gay-bar. It never happened; the record did. This record is conceptual too, coming with at least one twee discipline, and it’s the twee-est: two minutes is better than three.
That’s more of the same, a guy full of flimsy little ideas, and it’s interesting to think that amidst what fans will think of as a chance to take a time-machine back to Merritt’s glory days, what he’s playing is completely new to him. Or so he claims: “the synthesizers on the record didn’t exist when we were last using synthesizers.” And yet here it is, a song about love laboured over a cross-dresser. It’s interesting to think that tinkering with new toys has produced the same Merritt as ever. He remains happy in his misery and unsettingly hilarious in his tone, still, it’s reassuring to know, playing high and low with his characters and pleas for shags. Perhaps most notably he continues to pose a clever and passionate challenge to the gender binary. He just continues to. This truly is picking up where you left off. The new-synth era? “Andrew In Drag” feels like ye olden days.