Curb Your Enthusiasm. Really.

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2008

Singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt can't stand the sound of applause.

He suffers from hyperacusis, a painful sensitivity to certain sound frequencies that might qualify as a curse even if he were not a musician. "I wish it were only a metaphor," Merritt says.

So how does he manage to rock the big rooms?

"We try not to perform live in big rooms," says Merritt, 42. But the Magnetic Fields -- the most celebrated of his several bands -- is booked Sunday night at GWU's Lisner Auditorium, which is not small. "I know," he says, "no comment."

There are other singers and musicians in the band, but for all practical purposes, the Magnetic Fields is Merritt: The credits on the band's latest album, "Distortion," read "made by Stephin Merritt with . . . ," then list the other contributors. Nine years ago, the Magnetic Fields capped off a prolific first decade of recordmaking with "69 Love Songs," a three-volume set more inspired by his scholarly and satirical interest in the love-song genre than by, you know, love. The lyrics to his dizzyingly catchy songs are often morbid, despairing, self-loathing or across-the-board misanthropic.

Merritt has found himself frequently likened to Cole Porter, though he is partial to Irving Berlin (in whose honor he named his Chihuahua) or, well, Abba. Like Porter and Berlin -- and Abba -- Merritt has worked in musical theater. In 2003, he collaborated with theater and opera director Chen Shi-Zheng on an adaptation of the 13th-century Chinese comic opera "The Orphan of Zhao"; two more shows with Chen followed. Merritt moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2006 to chip away at his goal of creating 50 Hollywood musicals. A stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel "Coraline," for which Merritt is composing the music and lyrics, is set to open next year.

But a more important link to Berlin is that Merritt writes in character, like every songwriter he admires.

It's a question of sincerity. Or more to the point, it isn't. Merritt says he thinks it's absurd for a listener to wonder whether a songwriter really means it. "There is a myth of the autobiographical singer-songwriter because of a few songs that have happened to be traceable as autobiography," he explains. "But I don't think that even in the depths of the singer-songwriter movement there was very much autobiography happening. Even if there were, who made that an ideal for songwriting? Why should we be expected to be sincere in some way?"

Besides the trio of Chinese operas and couple of films he has scored, Merritt has released 21st-century albums with all his other groups: The 6ths feature his pop songs performed mostly by other singers, while the Future Bible Heroes focus on electro-pop. The Gothic Archies, meanwhile, are even more morose than Merritt's other enterprises. In 2006, the group released "Tragic Treasury," an album to accompany "A Series of Unfortunate Events" children's novels, whose author, Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler, played accordion on the album, as he sometimes does for the Magnetic Fields.

In addition to indie stardom, Merritt has firsthand experience of the lifestyle enjoyed by music journalists: He was a copy editor at Spin magazine and wrote music criticism for Time Out New York. Point out that musicians writing about music are less common than, say, authors reviewing books, and he'll agree: "That's because most pop musicians can't read." He retired from music criticism a few years back. "I was likely to be in contact with the people I was insulting," he says. "I didn't feel free to express my real contempt."

But, hey, he has a flourishing career as a songwriter for that.

The Magnetic Fields Appearing Sunday at GWU's Lisner Auditorium (730 21st St. NW). Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets:$35, 301-808-6900. The Download: For a sampling of music, check out: From " 69 Love Songs":· "Washington, D.C." · "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" From "i":· "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin"

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