Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

There are certain songs I’ve been dreading writing about, and this is one of them, because there are certain songs which turn me back into a slightly confused fifteen-year-old writing lyrics out on his Biology folder. That isn’t to say “Lonely Days” strikes much of a chord with me, you understand: the lyrics picked for public display were selected for quotability not honesty, and Stephin Merritt is nothing if not quotable. If you’re going to write a song about being born metropolitan in a dead-end town, you could hardly manage it otherwise. But then I live in London, hardly the kind of humdrum place “Lonely Days” is talking about, and while “Nothing good is on TV / No-one falls in love with me” is (as well as being the kind of couplet I’d have worn out biros on) strictly speaking true, it’s not as if I want it to be otherwise. Much.

Stephin Merritt writes the lyrics for the Future Bible Heroes, and writes everything for a rack of other bands, of whom the best known is the wonderful Magnetic Fields. I know precious little about the man. He’s gay, the best American songwriter of his generation (whichever one that is since I’ve no idea of his age), his reputedly staggering new album is impossible to buy in British shops, and that’s about it. He also doesn’t release enough singles. That may be because nobody buys them: “Lonely Days” has everything I want from a pop song except saturation – or indeed any – radio play*. Another reason I’ve been dreading writing about it: it’ll turn me into the kind of alt.grudgebearer who does nothing but complain about what a hollow sham the charts are, and by the way how come his favourite band never gets high enough?

*It doesn’t have a Motiv 8 mix either, now I think about it. Bad Stephin.

Okay: broadly speaking there are two reasons I like Stephin Merritt’s songwriting (leaving out the understated but lovely melodies the man writes). Some of his songs I like because they’re clever or funny or have neat unexpected rhymes in them, and some of his songs I like because when they’re playing I’m so tied up in them I’d expect to see Stephin in the mirror instead of me. “Lonely Days”, like I say, isn’t the kind of song I drown in: most of the emotional pull on me comes from the subtle, tidal arrangements and Claudia Gonson’s elegantly resigned tones. But the craft and wit of it all lift my spirits anyway, and if sympathy’s tougher to write about than full-on empathy, it’s at least less exhausting.