is sung, at least according to Voltaire. “But,” I would add, “it isn’t sung by Stephen Merritt.”
I discovered the many worlds of Stephen Merritt in a rather roundabout way. Having become completely enthralled with Lemony Snicket’s dark, dire, and cleverly written “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, when I discovered that the audiobooks, at least the first few, were read by Tim Curry, I couldn’t help myself, and began at The Bad Beginning (which is a very good bad place to start). But the first recording began not with the story, but with a song—a dark, accordian-lurching waltz sung by an equally dark, melancholy voice, low and dead-eyed, forewarning the horrors of Count Olaf and his henchmen. (“You might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices…”)
Extremes are a funny thing. For instance, there are some animals that are just so homely that they’re completely endearing. Likewise, the Snicket books are so gloomy and macabre that they’re hilarious and delightful—this is also true in the world of Stephen Merritt. Under the guise of The Gothic Archies for the Snicket books, he wrote a dreary, depressing tune for each book filled with tales of the terrible things to come, and about what a horrible world it is.
Lots of people have done this. Lots of people sing depressing songs about what a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad world it is. But they’re not funny. What makes Merritt’s lyrics hilarious is his wordplay, his juxtapositions of strange words and rhymes perched jauntily on top of dreary ukulele melodies that lurch under the weight of the awfulness to come. Anyone who can rhyme “accomplices” so cheerily and then fall into a folk song-y cadence of “run, run, run, run, or die, die, die, die die…” is a delightful genius in my books.
All thirteen songs from the Snicket series have been since compiled onto a standalone disc, The Tragic Treasury. But to my delight, I discovered that Stephen Merritt had yet another group, a “real” group, The Magnetic Fields, that had been recording long before Snicket and the Archies even existed. I picked up the “i” recording, more than a little nervous that it would be much more mainstream than the Archies. But not to worry… the same melancholy tunes, Merritt’s same melancholy voice, the same deadpan humor and despondency. A little more mature in content than the Archies in places, but all the same beautiful, terrible tales of love and lost love and fanciful desires. “I wish I had an evil twin, running round doing people in…”
There is laughter and mischief mixed in there with all the melancholy. And the world can be a very scary place—a little chuckle in between can take the edge off just a bit.