Stephin Merritt Won’t Leave My Heart Alone

by: Mariann Devlin 

The first time I heard the Magnetic Fields, I was on a bus in Anchorage, Alaska, headed to one of my classes. I had just broken up with someone, and my friend–at my request–made me an angry breakup mix. Determined to let anger consume whatever sadness, regret or nostalgia I may have felt, I put on my headphones. The song I heard was “Meaningless.”

You mean it’s all been meaningless?
Every whisper and caress?
Yes yes yes it was totally meaningless!
–“Meaningless,” The Magnetic Fields 

Who has not, in a moment of pain, reacted in radical self-defense by announcing to him and to everyone else around you that you’re just so completely over the incredibly, unprecendently, comprehensively, mind-blowingly meaningless relationship? Only to, deep down inside, wish you could renounce everything by either curling up and dying or becoming a nun?

I fell immediately in love with singer and songwriter Stephin Merritt, who continues to churn out the most bittersweet, lovesick and relateable indie pop songs I’ve ever heard.

So many songwriters write obscure lyrics in an effort to sound like their love has a profundity that only intricate, symbol-laden poetry can express. Merritt is proof that sometimes, you can navigate the complex waters of love with a lyric that sounds like a teenager’s diary scribbling (albeit a very clever, well-read teenager who alludes to e.e. cummings).

Merritt is a realist: when it comes to heartbreak, every single one of us devolves into an outraged, petty brat.  With a split personality, of course. There are lots of angry love songs to go around, but Merritt has penned some of the most romantic songs I’ve ever heard too.  Screw Peter Gabriel’s rendition, as popularized by Scrubs! Give credit where credit is due.  Check out this rendition of “The Book of Love”

When I saw the documentary Strange Powers, my friend and I had a discussion about the appeal of Stephin Merritt. The guy, as my friend put it, doesn’t seem very “other-oriented,”  since his personality appears rather bleak throughout the film. I’m afraid if I met him he’d just stare at me like the bumbling, giddy idiot that I sometimes am, and in that way, he reminds me a lot of my other favorite antisocial personality, Morrissey. Yet he has tapped into the collective conscious by writing some of the most affirming lyrics I’ve had the pleasure of listening to:

Love is like jazz
You make it up as you go along and you act as if you really know the song
But you don’t and you never will
So you flaunt your mistakes and you make them until they were you
Love is like jazz
The same song, a million times in different ways
“Strange Fruit” with and without wind chimes
It’s divine, i’s asinine, it’s depressing
And it’s almost entirely window dressing but it’ll do
–“Love is Like Jazz,” The Magnetic Fields 

I’m pressured to put a Magnetic Fields song on every mix I make. Merritt has held my hand through my last three breakups just as much as my best friends, and he’s also been there to rejoice with me in those moments where I love someone so much I feel like dancing.

In honor of him, and in anticipation of the newest Magnetic Fields album being released on March 6th called Love at the Bottom of the Sea, I present five songs for every stage in the grief recovery process.

Shock and Denial: “Meaningless”

And if some dim bulb should say
we were in love in some way
kick all his teeth in for me
And if you feel like keeping on kicking feel free

Pain, Guilt and Regret: “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do”

All the things you said you’d never say and you said anyway
the things we did and didn’t do
Come flooding back to me now

Anger and Bargaining: “I Don’t Know What To Say”

I could say I crave you, still you little brat
I could rant and rave, you know I can do that
I could say I gave you everything I had
I could say I’ll save you, you might think me mad

Depression and Loneliness: “Epitaph for My Heart”

This is the epitaph for my heart
Because it’s gone, gone gone
And life goes on and on anon
And death goes on, world without end
And you’re not my friend

Lifting and Rebuilding: “Drive On, Driver”

Take me to the airport, I need to be extremely far away
So I can forget about her, I might forget about her someday

Acceptance: “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore”

‘Cause I’ve read your horoscope
And now I’ve given up all hope
So I don’t really love you anymore

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.


One response to “Stephin Merritt Won’t Leave My Heart Alone

  1. Don’t forget his ability to write fantastic songs about being in love, too! I mean, there’s 69 Love Songs, which is an awful lot of love songs. “Papa Was a Rodeo” is one of my favorite-ever songs, which probably says a lot about my own psyche and sense of ideal relationships. Then there’s “You and Me and the Moon” (it takes place at a gay bar!) And finally I submit “There’s Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old,” because it talks about sex and drugs in heaven, and I, too, am holding off on cocaine until I get to heaven.

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