Will Stephin Merritt ever write an album that doesn’t sound like a suicidal afterthought on a sunny day? Whenever the prickly songwriter meanders back onto the map with a new release from one of his myriad of projects, the conversation tends to pivot around some variation on this question. He’s expanded his musical range in recent years, penning a rock record and a folk album, but his thematic concerns remain largely the same. At this point, what do we expect from a guy who started a band to write songs to accompany a book series whose opening line is “To Beatrice- darling, dearest, dead”? With each new release it seems we further justify our reasoning not to accept a party invite from the morose Merritt (regardless of how much booze he might provide).
Future Bible Heroes’ new album is titled Partygoing, not “partythrowing.” Merritt remains the guy at the shindig who’s keeping an eye out for an opportunity to discreetly duck out while playing with the loose thread in the couch cushions—haven’t we all been there too? What separates Partygoing from its predecessors, 1997s Memories Of Love and 2002s Eternal Youth, is that there is a clear concept on this album that’s threading Merritt’s paperheart songs together this time around. It’s all there: motifs of inebriety, cheeky dance floors, potential love interests (as well as disinterests).
Merritt provides a sundry of references to some of life’s most universal anxieties, at one point singing matter-of-factly, “Can’t afford the rent/All our money stolen/All our future spent.” It’s a downer counterpoint to the revelry of recent party-centric album’s like Disclosure’s Settle and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, but it’s also a helpful reminder that not all parties are successful sprees of losing one’s paranoid present in a catchy bass line. Partygoing is by default the un-welcomed guest that shows up and says, “I’m here and I have a lot of stuff on my mind from this past week and, frankly, I’m not feeling this right now.” It’s a loose concept, sure, but so was Eternal Youth, which was basically a parade of unconnected cartoonish characters.
The revitalization of the project finds many of the original Future Bible Heroes members back in the fold: Merritt, Claudia Gonson (also a member of Merritt’s most well-known music project, The Magnetic Fields) and Christopher Ewen are all here. The mechanics of the album are the same on Partygoing as they have been for the trio in the past: Merritt provides his self-deprecating bon mots for content, Gonson from time to time contributes some mirthful vocals and Ewen’s frothy synth fizzes over the brim of every song. The bits of jubilance are comfortably dolled out in proportionate to the morose odes like “Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)” and “Digging My Own Grave.”
As always, the darkness is cut with moments of mirth, even though no one will mistake this for a dance party soundtrack. The synth carries no danceable beat and is often times too sporadic to even rhythmically sway to. Merritt professes things like “All I care about is love/Greater than the stars above” just to turn around and show us how unattainable his dreams are. It’s like he has all these fettering dreams of a utopian love but knows these thoughts are all just part of an idealistic meditation. I guess if you had to call it something you could tag it lucid dream pop. In “Keep Your Children in A Coma” Merritt implores “Keep your children in a coma starting today,” insinuating that the world is a deranged and hopeless territory where there’s “All that background radiation, oil companies run mad/Party politics amok, good girls gone bad.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if these lyrics are hard to come to terms with. We can turn on the news and, essentially, hear the same stuff. What throws a wet blanket over the lyrical content and Merritt’s Debbie Downer persona is that he can’t come up with a better way of handling this conflict between his idealism and realism. What’s his solution? “Drink nothing but champagne/It makes life shorter than drinking water.”