Now that the no-synth sabbatical — in the form of a three album trilogy — has completed its expected revolution — literally and astronomically — Stephin Merritt revives their earlier synthesized sound — right before your girlfriend’s face gets blown off. The disjunct pace of what you just read is paralleled by the album itself; pretty choppy and slightly under-cooked. I expected more bizarre snippets of post-modern minutiae and pop melodies jostling off-pitch effects for sonic legitimacy. I wasn’t anticipating this unfolding battle to feel largely insignificant in spite of all the new territories conquered.
First off, “California Girls” and “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” (both on 2008’s Distortion and 2010’s Realism respectively) are the main highlights of their last decade in synthesized absentia. You could make a legitimate argument for the first of these two gems initiating the still ongoing post-pop acid-wash treatment of the Beach Boys’ catalog. Merritt’s flat baritone pairs beautifully with sardonic verses “Why would I want to talk to you/I want you crawling back to me/Down on your knees yeah/Like an appendectomy” on the latter, the opening spark for their live rendition, Realism.
Logic, which Merritt and most artists tend to avoid like a silent death spiral, would presume that all the rich intricacies and textures mastered previously would blend harmoniously with any future endeavors. If this compilation serves as a water mark for said future, then it might be time to push the reset button.
Of course there’s always some shining light at the end of the myopic tunnel. Render away most of the rock on “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth”, throw in some Thompson Twins pomp and They Might Be Giants’ frivolity, you’ll end up with something resembling opener “God Wants Us To Wait.” Clever lines abound: “I guess it’s true I should have told you before/And not have waited till we’re nude on the floor/Though it would be the end to our perfect date/I love you baby but God wants us to wait.” Catchy disco bass line, smooth robotic meter and electric panache add new comedic depth to already laughable contradictions in puritanical sex dogma. “Andrew in Drag” might be the only single in sight here. I’m not just saying that because it incorporates more acoustic guitar and Merritt’s Lynch-like penchant for stretching half-notes for more bars than I can count. A great pop song is a great pop song regardless of what arrangements you employ to disseminate the core, a crisp, teeming one at that.
I’ll now devote exactly one sentence to the remaining filler recorded. The 2 Bears would add considerable life to a flaccid “Your Girlfriend’s Face.” “Born For Love” has a promising jumbled scale melody, it just never really takes you anywhere worthwhile. Tim and Eric would break it down to “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)”, or that rotund dandy from the Imaginationland trilogy, but not most rational folk. “Goin Back to the Country” is “120 bpm country disco” for sure, but no one actually wants to have its zestless dissonance ringing unceremoniously through their aural cavities. I lied, I’m going to stop here. You get the point.
Maybe Merritt wants to throw a gyroball at his fan base or popular culture at large. If this latest work is some sort of bizarre social commentary on the shallow vapid wasteland that is popular music (Exhibit A: The scary ass chicken clown on the cover), then more power to him. He nailed it. As far as a memorable addition to Magnetic Zero’s otherwise remarkable catalog, it’s a resounding 32-bit whoopie cushion.