Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of Future Bible Heroes' "Partygoing"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website last night:

Review Summary: "I gave you my heart/You showed me the door/I brought you champagne/We danced until 4/Living/Loving/Partygoing."

Stephin Merritt's main band, The Magnetic Fields, has just released their new opus 50 Song Memoir, and while most Merritt fans are still trying to work their way through it, there are already a couple of reviews for it on this site. So this seems like a good time to take a look back at Merritt's previous release, the 2013 Partygoing album by Future Bible Heroes. 

First, regarding the differences between Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes, while the lines are kind of blurry at times, there are a few. The most important one is that while Merritt is the songwriter for both bands, and his friend, manager, percussionist and sometimes vocalist Claudia Gonson is a member of each project, Future Bible Heroes has from its inception been a 3-piece band that also includes electronic instrumentalist (and Merritt's erstwhile lover) Chris Ewen. For me, Ewen, a former member of the 1980s new wave/techno band Figures on a Beach, gives FBH an extra dimension. Wikipedia describes Future Bible Heroes' music as "electronica-based disco", and while this isn't always the case, it's not far off the mark, thanks to Ewen's contributions.

There are other differences between the two bands as well, even if they're not always consistent. For one, Gonson is oftentimes the lead vocalist for FBH, while in The Magnetic Fields, although she takes the occasional lead vocal, Merritt has been the main singer since 1994's The Charm of the Highway Strip. Also, while this isn't true 100% of the time, I'd say that the songs Merritt writes for Magnetic Fields lean towards being a little more personal, while those he writes for Future Bible Heroes are more often character pieces and tend to showcase his funereal sense of humor just a little more frequently.

Partygoing is Future Bible Heroes' third full-length album, and while it's not as strong overall as their 1997 debut Memories of Love (which I consider practically a perfect album), it's more consistent than their previous LP Eternal Youth (2002). Also, although Eternal Youth found Gonson performing all of the lead vocals, Partygoing returns to Memories of Love's successful formula of having Gonson and Merritt trade leads. This is a plus, and it keeps the vocal sound more interesting. Merrit has described the album as being inspired by The B-52s' Party Mix! EP (1981), only in this case, it's "a party album that only just happens to be largely about drunk suicide, aging, death, loss and despair." Party on, Garth! Party on, Wayne.

Like all of Stephin Merritt's various projects, Future Bible Heroes lives or dies on the strength of his songwriting. If you're looking for complicated music that showcases virtuoso instrumentation, this isn't going to be the band for you. Instead, they're all about songs with catchy hooks, clever lyrics that are often funny and sometimes heartbreaking, and vocals that are effective but unusual -- Merritt has a dry and distinctive bass voice, and while I find Gonson's voice kind of pretty, it always sounds as though she has a bit of a cold. Clearly, this isn't a band for the masses, but more of a niche band with a loyal and dedicated following. So the songs it is, then.

There are a total of 13 tracks on Partygoing, and I'd rate about 10 of them as being in the range of decent to very good. The catchiest number is probably the one that gave the album its title, "Living, Loving, Partygoing". It's one of those songs that as soon as you get to know it, it gives you a bit of rush when the familiar opening chords kick in. There's not much here lyrically -- it essentially follows an emotionally masochistic relationship through an endless string of empty parties over the course of a year -- but the hooks would make Hellraiser's Pinhead character smile.

The song that really jumped out at me when I first heard the album was one of those with a Merritt lead vocal, "Keep Your Children in a Coma". According to all available public information, Merritt has no children, and the lyrics to this one indicate that's probably for the best. In this number, he advocates a unique method of protecting your little angels from the evils of the world -- "You can't let them go to school/For fear of bullying little beasts/And you can't send them to church/For fear of priests" -- so the solution is obvious: "Keep your children in a coma through their teens." I've considered it, but I just can't seem to sell my wife on it.

Another of my favorite tracks is a slow, ominous number called "How Very Strange" which harks back to the Magnetic Fields song "Yeah! Oh Yeah!" from their 69 Love Songs album. As in that song, Gonson and Merritt act out a horrifying relationship call and response style, as she wonders aloud how she ever got involved with him in the first place, and he explains to us it had a lot to do with psychopharmacology: She: "How strange that when you left I missed you"; He: "I put a little heroin..."; She: "I can't think why, I can't think how"; He: " everything you took in." At least in this case, unlike in the Magnetic Fields' track, her character is still alive in the end.

Some of the songs here are amusing but poignant, such as the ode to double suicide "Let's Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)"; others are about a devotion of a different kind, like "Satan, Your Way Is a Hard One." There's a famous story that when Bob Mould of Husker Du was told that a particular reviewer had labeled him "the most depressed man in rock," Mould's response was "He's never met Stephin Merritt, obviously." So it makes sense that this is Merritt's idea of a party.

I've insisted for years, and I continue to maintain, that while Magnetic Fields is considered to be Stephin Merritt's main band, Future Bible Heroes is actually a superior project. The combination of Ewen's strange little electronic contributions and Gonson's more frequent vocals make FBH just a little lighter and a little more enjoyable. I've got my 5-Disc copy of The Magnetic Fields' 50 Song Memoir on order, and like most Merritt fans, I'll be wading into it and hoping to find him at his best. I'll be pleasantly surprised, however, if it gives me anywhere near as much enjoyment as Partygoing has provided me. So if the thought of plodding your way through a 50-song musical heroic poem makes you contemplate just how smoothly your razor would slice through your jugular vein, I'd suggest that maybe you give this album another look instead. And while you're at it, party on!

Rating: 4 of 5 stars