Stephin Merritt’s Showtunes CD (released last year) provides an instructive test case for exactly why I tend to dislike showtunes. The CD is a compilation of songs from three musicals for which Merritt served as composer and librettist for Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng.
Do I enjoy the melodies of the songs on the CD? Yes. Are the arrangements unusual, intriguing, and successful? Yes – there aren’t that many songs built on accordions, steel drums, Stroh violin, ukulele, autoharp, lute, plus pipa and other Chinese instruments. Are the lyrics witty, intelligent, impeccably constructed, and (so far as one can tell) useful to the plots of the musicals? C’mon, this is Stephin Merritt we’re talking about. I suspect he orders pizza with more wit, intelligence, and verve than most folks write short stories.
Do I like the CD, then?
Uh, not really. Why? Because nearly all the singing is done by singer/actors whose tone, enunciation, and general vocal production are very, very…Broadway (there’s no other word for it). There’s something about this sort of hyperenthusiastic, consonant-sculpting sound that just cloys for me. Oh – and two tracks feature the most annoying falsetto I’ve ever heard – and that’s even after I allow for the fact that it’s supposed to be annoying.
This is too bad – because really, writing for musicals is a job designed for Merritt. He gets to write in character (which he does anyway), he’s not held to any particular genre, and his primary musical virtues – melody, lyrical wit – are those of the best Broadway showtunes. The songs also demonstrate that Merritt, like most great songwriters, has an instantly recognizable melodic and harmonic profile. Take “The Top and the Ball“: that chorus is utterly Stephin Merritt, such that even when the song is scored for accordion and pipa, you can almost hear Merritt’s doleful bass* singing along (it isn’t).
Incidentally, I suspect that fans of musicals who might like this album might be disappointed with the rest of Merritt’s output (at least the songs he sings)…since that voice is, apparently, an acquired taste. (Or so everyone says: I’ve always loved it.) To me, its deadpan, resonant rumble is perfect counterpoint to Merritt’s bruised romanticism: he’s cynical, but by no means hopeless…and cynicism in romance arises from failed romanticism. You can’t be cynical if you don’t care, if you have no hopes to be dashed.
By contrast, these singers – even if they might be technically superior to Merritt as vocalists, at least by certain definitions of vocal technique – seem to inhabit their voices and, by extension, Merritt’s lyrics, much as they inhabit the costumes they wear on stage. And while I’m by no means claiming that any sort of “authenticity” or autobiography characterizes Merritt’s lyrics, there’s a sense of persona dwelling in them: again, they’re recognizably his, even if you don’t know at first who wrote them.
Merritt’s work for musicals also allows him to indulge in one of his favorite lyrical conceits: lyrics that refer to the song in progress. “Shall We Sing a Duet?” (presented here in its reprise) is an excellent example. The singing on both of these tracks, by the way, is less “Broadway” than on many other songs on the CD…so if sounds too musical-y to you, be forewarned.
* Merritt’s voice is definitely in the bass range – but it’s typically referred to by music critics as “baritone” (as are those of most lower-voiced singers)…presumably because everyone knows the word “bass,” and the word “baritone” sounds fancier, as if the critic knows a thing or two about music. Heh. Incidentally, Thom Jurek’s review of the CD in the All-Music Guide doesn’t commit this blunder and is generally an accurate assessment of the CD…but two-third of the way through, Jurek suddenly goes off the rails in a pre-emptive attack at what he guesses will be indie-rock critics’ rejection of the CD (metacritic.com notes that its average critical score is 69: pretty good, in fact). That’s odd enough – but then he specifically attacks…well, it’s too bad-good not to quote in full: “You can hear the spoiled, wealthy, upper-crust indie rock wiseacres cynically snickering and smirking their bellicose, smarmy analyses of this album over the tops of books by Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Zizek (which they also misunderstand), on blogs and hipper-than-thou websites.” I gather Thom Jurek is a Man of the People, salt of the earth (much like Merritt himself who, of course, grew up a sharecropper’s son in deepest Alabama). It’s good to know that he, unlike the half-educated critics he imagines, does in fact understand Derrida and Zizek (whose name needs diacritics, but I’m too lazy to find them). I hope I’m not being too smarmy and bellicose in my cynical snickering here.
Update: If you check the comments for this post, you’ll see that Thom Jurek has responded to this post – by apologizing for including irrelevant personal material in his review! This is extraordinary, I think – in fact, he plans to change the review in response. The key word, I’d say, is “irrelevant”: while a reviewer for a site such as AMG should avoid personal details that are either not about the music or are unlikely to affect other listeners, reviews are unavoidably personal and subjective, in that they report one listener’s response, even if that response is put in a larger, more objective context. A minor comment: it wasn’t that I was “offended” by Jurek’s reviews, only that they seemed presumptuous and off-target. As he implies, he wrote about a discussion he had with friends, presumably concerning some particular blogs or critics he found smarmy and pretentious. (I certainly didn’t think he was talking about me: my readership is in the upper double-digits, and in all probability Jurek is among them for this post solely because I linked to his review. In any event, I’m all for smarmy cynicism in blogs, rather than in reviews – as long as it’s entertaining and well-written!)