After having been seduced by the Magnetic Fields' sublime love-in-its-many-splendored-facets masterwork, 69 Love Songs, I would have followed NYC singer/songwriter/group brain trust Stephin Merritt and chanteuse Claudia Gonson to the very gates of Hell. After hearing the latest offering from one of Merritt's numerous side projects, Future Bible Heroes (featuring Gonson as vocalist and Christopher Ewen as composer), I'm led somewhere else: into a sticky black quandary. Or perhaps into a sober realization that not everything Lord Merritt touches is destined for gilded greatness.
How could the same songwriter/singer duo that brought the understated beauty of "Acoustic Guitar" into the world deliver such a stillborn collection as Eternal Youth (Instinct Records)? With the addition of electronica whiz Ewen, perhaps? There is beauty here. Beautiful human words, beautiful human voices -- all buried under a landslide of jarring electronic noise.
The album starts out in spectacular fashion with the dreamy electro-pop of "Losing Your Affection." Sounding very much like a 69 Love Songs outtake, the song conveys simple and universal sentiments via Gonson's detached vocals and Merritt's typically adroit combination of playful wit, melodrama and empathy: "I would rather be the Queen at the guillotine in a bloody insurrection/ I would rather be the king when the rooks take wing than be losing your affection." Almost immediately, however, Ewen's overly complex, often grating arrangements intrude (beginning with the Chinese water torture rhythms of "Doris Day the Earth Stood Still"), rendering further emotional investments on the part of Merritt or Gonson DOA.
Relief comes in the form of the torchy and atmospheric "A Thousand Lovers in a Day." And "I'm a Vampire" is droll, fabulous fun -- one of the few upbeat numbers on the album. But even this bit of levity seems forced, as if Merritt figured that in a loose-concept album about immortality (which Eternal Youth seems to be more or less about), he'd just have to write at least one bloodsucker tune. Elsewhere, the cold, mechanized clatter continues to undermine, even trivialize, any genuine attempt at insightful discourse and romantic congress ("Find an Open Window," "Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes"). And nothing -- not even Gonson's beautiful voice -- can save the album closer, "The World is a Disco Ball," from the song's banal observation and the headache-inducing power of Ewen's bleeps and squirts.