Club Helsink Hudson
Friday, July 25, 2014
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(HUDSON, N.Y., July 27, 2014) – “This song is about a dead bird,” Stephin Merritt introduced one of his many three-minute masterpieces of wit, concision and melody on Friday night at Club Helsinki Hudson. And the room – packed to the gills for the hometown hero best known as leader of the indie-pop group, Magnetic Fields — broke out in laughter. And that pretty much sums it all up.
I don’t know if there’s ever been a songwriter with a blacker sense of humor than Stephin Merritt. He makes Randy Newman look like a teen-pop idol. Merritt knows this – at one point during his solo show, in which he accompanied himself on ukulele and sang in the world’s most impossibly deep baritone – he said about his songs, “They’re all about the same thing, really,” and he paused, just a little bit longer than was comfortable. Heartache, I thought. “Death,” he said. And of course he’s right.
Still, on the surface, he mostly sings about love and heartache – even though they’re mostly haunted by death, overtly or covertly. That dead bird? “My heart’s running ’round like a chicken with its head cut off/ All around the barnyard, falling in and out of love.” Or perhaps even more aptly, do a Google search for the lyrics to “Epitaph for My Heart,” which he sang and which brilliantly plays both on heartache and the knowledge that the heartache inspires the music and the fear that the music won’t be heard but just be forgotten: “Who’ll take its ashes and, singing, fling them from the top of the Brill Building?”
Merritt often relies on this meta-connection between music and emotion: “I have a mandolin,” he sings on “100,000 Fireflies.” He continues, “I play it all night long. It makes me want to kill myself.”
It’s just one after another like this with Merritt, the bleakest, darkest love-and-death songs, leavened with knowing wit (“I’m no Nina Rota/ But I know the score”) and haunting musicality.
I don’t even like the ukulele – in fact, I usually can’t stand it – but Merritt makes such good use of it as an instrument on which to play musical accompaniment for his songs, as opposed to the opposite (which I guess is lost on most players), that I totally didn’t mind it, and even was able to forget that it was a ukulele most of the time (it could just as easily have been a small guitar). I suppose you could say I’d rather die than listen to an entire concert of ukulele music. But then you’d merely be aping the brilliant Stephin Merritt.