Future Bible Heroes
31:01 min • Merge • June 10, 2013
John Preston reviews
For those who don’t know, Future Bible Heroes is one of pop-intellectual and miserablist Stephen Merritt’s many musical side projects, which he occasionally flirts with when he’s not otherwise engaged in being the most dominant, growling member of the everlasting band The Magnetic Fields. Following a self-imposed hiatus of electronic music over a three album period, The Magnetic Fields returned to synth-pop (a general term) on last year’s mostly underwhelming Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Future Bible Heroes released their last album in 2002 and this, their third, feels very much like a more leisurely, and superior companion piece to that last Magnetic Fields album.
Partygoing sees the vocal duties being shared between Merritt and The Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson, a change from their last collection, Eternal Youth, where Gonson led on every track and Christopher Ewan remained as music supervisor. Lyrically, themes of old (or the old), remain: ageing, unrequited love, loneliness, drug & drink reliance and keeping children in comas (for their own safety of course). Musically, British mid-eighties synth pop is Ewan’s main template and sometimes also the weak link on an album where some of the albeit strong melodies, certainly some of the best Meritt has written for a while, still require some musical gravitas to prevent them from becoming jokey novelty songs (a problem which plagued the Fields’ last album).
‘Let’s Go To Sleep (And Never Come Back)’ sees Claudia Gonson listing the reasons why she needs to finish with life (“can’t afford the children, can’t afford the rent”, sing it sister) with the usual, detached ironic humour typical of Merritt. It is sung over a soundtrack that sounds like a Yazoo demo. This reaches its natural conclusion later in the album with the brilliant ‘Digging My Own Grave’, which mimics a Moroder-produced Sparks track; it’s funny and, crucially, substantial. ‘How Very Strange’ is a clanking, melancholic variation of the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield’s ‘What Have I done To Deserve This?’ with Merritt playing Dusty.
I put a little heroin in everything you took in –
is the answer Merritt gives to Gonson (altogether puzzled by her situation), in response to Gonson’s male lead gender swap. It is fantastically arch and satisfying and the only time the two sing together here.
I personally find Merritt’s baritone bellow sometimes harder to take than Claudia Gonson’s plaintive, asexual stance. His dominant drawl, not exactly full of subtleties, can rob songs that are already lyrically sarcastic and ironic enough of any crucial sincerity or truth. However, on at least two occasions here – the catchy mid-tempo pop structure of ‘I Don’t Care’ and melancholic ‘Sadder than the Moon’ – Merritt does move. On the raucous musichall ‘Don’t Drink the Water’ we have comedic voices (an impersonation of David Bowie, which is funny the first time you hear it) and a sing-a-long chorus which comes off more as a gimmick than a solid song or performance. Gay, tortured and funny John Grant covered similar lyrical themes of neurosis and alienation on his spectacular Pale Green Ghosts album earlier this year, updating his sonic soundtrack to that of an inspired electronic stew. And this is where Partygoing falls short. Musically it’s often the case that a good melody (the title track a particular case in point) is undermined by a horribly thin and trite synthetic soundtrack. It can sound unfinished and one wonders just how fantastic some of these tracks would be with a propulsive production, the music here sometimes sounding like a self-conscious, piss-take of pop itself; an ironic nudge too far.
It is sometimes difficult to see where The Magnetic Fields end and the Future Bible Heroes begin, especially given that as an outlet for his electronic compulsion, which was the main purpose of the group, Stephen Merritt had already returned to this in his other group. Of course this doesn’t really matter and honestly, given the disappointment of The Magnetic Fields’ last full length, which was all fur coat and no knickers, Partygoing does in fact feel more like an unexpected treat from the same band rather than alternative one. Given, however, that it covers pretty much the same areas sonically and lyrically, it does so in a far more seductive and ultimately satisfying manner.