In "Hyacinths and Thistles," Stephin Merritt's grand romance, mortality is the constant companion of love--its presence intensifies and balances both giddy rush and heartbreaking crash with a bracing realism. Go for it now, Merritt suggests, and don't fall for the all-eternity philosophy. "The dead only quickly decay," he insists in a darkly bouncing ditty, "they don't go about being born and reborn and rising and falling like souffle."
This prolific New York studio recluse and cult hero was pushed into prominence last year when "69 Love Songs," an ambitious, three-CD set by one of his bands, Magnetic Fields, became the critical discovery of '99. Now he's back in one of his other recording identities, and while the 6ths' "Hyacinths" was recorded before "Love Songs," this sweet, touching album will do nothing to dissuade the partisans who hail Merritt as the second coming of Cole Porter and Leonard Cohen.
The characters in these 14 songs put everything they've got into the old-fashioned notion of romantic love, eloquently opening their hearts in a series of luminous nocturnes. And they definitely are different characters. In the 6ths, the auteur doesn't sing his creations, instead turning the songs over to a cast of underground pop luminaries and unexpected voices from the past.
There's Melanie as a survivor with a cracked voice, a glass of gin and a sleeping Manhattan at her command, and '60s folk priestess Odetta glows in her farewell to a soldier who has opened new worlds for her.
The form is postmodern cabaret on techno-pop clouds, with the theatricality of echo and exotica played against the candor of the singers' pleas and proposals. The result is both sweeping and intimate, and you find yourself caring about these people--resilient and dignified, unbowed by heartbreak. Merritt can be wry, but he believes in magic.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.