"I HAVE a confrontational, argumentative style," explains Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt of his reputation as a difficult fellow. In a telephone interview, however, he's hardly confrontational and only occasionally argumentative. The problem is that he's often inaudible. He answers questions in a bored monotone that drifts toward oblivion as he slowly formulates his response.
Perhaps Merritt is simply tired of answering questions. The Magnetic Fields' latest release, the three-CD "69 Love Songs," has attracted more media attention than its five predecessors, which the songwriter and a shifting cast of collaborators began making in 1991. Last month, Merritt made the cover of the Village Voice, with a headline that extolled him as a "visionary depressive."
"As a summary of my entire personality, it seems a little unfair," he muses laconically. "I'm an occasional depressive, and an occasional visionary, I guess.
"I think it's a little too personal," he adds.
When it's suggested that many listeners expect singer-songwriters to reveal personal information in their songs, Merritt suddenly becomes animated. "Do you really believe that?" he snaps. "I don't."
When not writing songs or doing short tours, like the one that brings his band to the Black Cat on Saturday, Merritt pens record reviews for Time Out New York, a weekly guide to New York's consumer whirl. This contentious sideline, more than his songs or personality, may explain Merritt's reputation for argumentativeness. He seems much more inclined to argue about the confessional singer-songwriter genre or the meaning of the term "indie-rock" than about his own work.
"I'm writing love songs," Merritt says. "It doesn't matter if I'm writing about my life. I might as well be writing about anybody's life. They're generic enough to apply to anybody. And even when they're not, they're not necessarily applying to me personally."
One tactic Merritt uses to put some distance between himself and his songs is recruiting others to sing them. The band's drummer-manager, Claudia Gonson, is the other Magnetic Fields vocalist; and "69 Love Songs" also uses three outside singers: L.D. Beghtol, Dudley Klute and Shirley Simms.
Still, there may be a germ of personal reality to such songs as "Absolutely Cuckoo," in which Merritt sings, "Don't fall in love with me . . . You might decide I'm a nut." And he eventually admits that there is a true story behind "Washington D.C.," the album's tribute to love among the monuments. "Actually, I have a friend who was moving away to Washington. Who didn't end up moving."
Although he has a taste for such styles as early-'60s girl groups and '80s synth-pop, Merritt also admires pre-rock songwriters like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. He is currently composing a film musical with novelist Daniel Handler, who plays accordion on "69 Love Songs," and announces that "indie-rock as a scene is dead."
Yet Merritt is an archetypal indie-rock figure who records for an archetypal indie-rock label, Superchunk's Merge. "I'm on an independent label that specializes in rock," he protests. "Some of the things on Merge are not quite rock, and some of the things are not very indie-oriented. The music they're putting out is not the Beat Happening-style music that they had been putting out. Records heavily influenced by Beat Happening just are not selling anymore."
"69 Love Songs" toys with a wide range of genres, including such unlikely ones as country and Scottish folk, but it could be argued that the album's spare, easygoing post-punk style owes something to Beat Happening's "love-rock." Merritt, however, says that the treatment is simply practical. "There being 69 of them, it would have taken quite a long time to do a big orchestral production. And having very few instruments per song lets the individual song come through."
Merritt also wanted the arrangements to match the album's plain design, which consists entirely of typewritten text and a few black-and-white photos. "The look was the first thing I thought of," he says.
Sequencing the album, he notes, was done with a similar pragmatism. "I wanted the guest singers to appear regularly, so each one gets like two songs on each record. I didn't want to suddenly have three Dudley songs in a row.
Although Merritt is pleased that his grand statement on love has earned his work more attention than ever before, "69 Love Songs" is not part of a long-term Magnetic Fields master plan.
"If I wanted to have the new Magnetic Fields album out one year away from `69 Love Songs,' that would be next September, and I would be recording it right now. But I haven't thought of anything," he admits.
Now Merritt's voice is strong and clear. "I have no idea what to do next," he says with a laugh. "I'm tearing my hair out in anguish at my stupidity for doing something so difficult to follow." He pauses, and then makes a request that soundsdownright congenial. "If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them."
MAGNETIC FIELDS -- Appearing Saturday at the Black Cat. To hear a free Sound Bite, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8109. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)