This week our guest correspondent Eileen Can reviews the new Future Bible Heroes album, Partygoing, out June 4 on Merge Records. Future Bible Heroes will play DC July 26 at the Black Cat.
New Release: Partygoing
Release Date: June 4, 2013
Record Label: Merge Records
Sounds Like: The Magnetic Fields, The Flaming Lips, Pet Shop Boys
Location: San Francisco, Calif.
Followers of songwriter Stephin Merritt know his projects The 6THs, the soundtrack he composed for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and most notably The Magnetic Fields (NMT). Future Bible Heroes is the experimental arm of his expanding musical empire, and the one in which Merritt and bandmates Christopher Ewen and Claudia Gonson exercise their intergalactic disco fantasies – a successful endeavor if you are listening in your basement, but save your nickels for the four-CD boxset from Merge before you think about stalking their tour bus from coast to coast.
The best and worst part about seeing one of Merritt’s bands live is that there is no pretense – the ensemble typically comes across as unrehearsed and unaware that a hundred or more fans spent money, cleared their calendars, and are now standing (or sitting) in an auditorium, eager to see for themselves the magnificent musicians who produced clever tunes such as "The Lonely Robot." What you find instead is a clan of tired, sassy travelers, and Claudia Gonson hitching up her pants and spouting off about Calvin Trillin books. Merritt is without exception an irritable performer, and his chronic hyperacusis makes him no fun on stage. Future Bible Heroes (FBH) will be touring without Merritt this summer, and the jury is still out as to whether this will enhance the group’s reputation.
If you can’t enjoy a band live, the next best thing is to have them gift you with an album that serves as a party-kit-in-a-CD-sleeve (just add friends). While Partygoing doesn’t have any track as compelling as the 2002 FBH toe-tapper "I’m a Vampire," it’s an album in the truest sense – perfect for an era in which some journalists think no one listens to albums anymore. The key to enjoying this record is to play it all, in order, and give it time. It mirrors the arc of an actual party, and with each track you find yourself more engaged.
It opens with the intriguing A Drink is Just the Thing, which serves as a brief and alluring overture. On to "Sadder Than the Moon," in which the lunar themes, shattered hearts and general unrequitedness of all Merritt’s lyrics assert themselves through his cloudy baritone. Picture a slow but earnest start to a party that is just gathering in your rec room, wallflowers and all. The patient listener will hold tight, rearrange chairs, and get comfortable for the rest of the album, which unfurls with "Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)" – a tame, 21st century counterpart to the Magnetic Fields’ 1994 single "Take Ecstasy with Me." Despite his hearing problems, Merritt is aging well, and his writing shows it.
"A New Kind of Town" will kick 80s enthusiasts down memory lane while managing to sound original. It pays just enough homage to trippy, sexy techno of old, with lyrics built for a brave new world. Although Merritt is not one to weave subtle social commentary into his songs (direct, face-slapping opinions, yes), this all-welcoming and inclusive tune proclaims that, “It’s a dance hall for the new freaks, baby/With a dance floor where no one says maybe,” and we almost catch a glimpse of him smiling through Gonson’s vocals. “There’s a sun now,” she sings, “Wake up, you’re snoring.” This song’s merry-go-round continues, extolling openness and open doors, perhaps signaling a new era for FBH, who until now had not released an album in over a decade.
The biggest surprise of the set is "All I Care About is You," which seems unremarkable at first but improves upon repeated listenings. Although in real life Stephin Merritt is known to be a first-rate Mr. Cranky Pants, no one denies the sweetness of his lyrics. You can dismiss “And I don’t care if it’s all in my head/And I don’t care if it’s complicated” as sophomoric, but a greater challenge would be to claim you don’t identify with the sentiment. “Hold my hand,” he sings, and leaves it at that to pave the way for Partygoing’s climax.
In a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, Benjamin Franklin said that, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The Future Bible Heroes’ version of that which is certain above all else? "Living, Loving, Partygoing." Merritt has a habit of lauding champagne, but here we get John Waters, Andy Warhol and Guy Fawkes floating in it, and all before this gem: “At Mink Stole’s birthday in gay Provincetown/I came to DJ and left with the clown.” It’s a warm, feel-good dance song that even a misanthrope can embrace.
Sure, Partygoing contains a handful of duds like "How Very Strange" and "Digging My Own Grave," but just imagine at this point that your shindig is really hopping and the conversation is roaring, so no one wants to be distracted by some fanboy cranking the volume knob and shouting, “You gotta hear this one!” It ebbs and flows, it has highs and lows, and it grows on you as a good party should. Novelist David Mitchell expressed it thus in Black Swan Green: "You look a total wally if you dance too early, but after one crucial song tips the disco over, you look a sad saddo if you don't." In this collection, "Living, Loving, Partygoing" is that crucial song.
The party continues, and then slowly winds down as parties do. You’ll be sweeping the floor and filling the recycling bin to "When Evening Falls on Tinseltown," desperately hoping your next soiree will measure up to this one. Misanthropy and hyperacusis be damned – Stephin Merritt and friends always seems to have a good time.
Special note to all you tweeters out there: #FBH is evidently in use for “free bingo hour” and not “Future Bible Heroes,” but hey, the sentiment is right!