Wasps’ Nests was not peak Merritt, but its best songs and performances hold up as well as anything he’s ever made.
Before 1999, when 69 Love Songs turned The Magnetic Fields from hard-working niche elves to commercially viable darlings, Stephin Merritt “couldn’t get arrested professionally.” Conventional wisdom has it that with his ambitious 3-CD breakthrough of 1999, the singer-songwriter’s dry bass baritone and gift for the hook had finally become something that would make money. Yet in the space of about 18 months in 1994 and 1995, The Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt was on the kind of creative roll that presaged that fin de siècle burst of earworms. In that time span he released three albums from his day band and even took the time to spawn a new side project. Captured Tracks has just reissued that extracurricular album, The 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests, and if it’s not to the level of Merritt’s sprawling sendoff for the century, it still features some of the catchiest songs of the ‘90s.
Merritt handed off all but one of the album’s vocals to a cast of indie rock all-stars, but he wasn’t fobbing off lesser material on his guests. In fact, the jangle-heavy album is played looser and more relaxed than anything The Magnetic Fields released in this period. Opener “San Diego Zoo” is the kind of angst-ridden love song that has been Merritt’s signature, and while his own voice would have lent it a deadpan irony, Barbara Manning gives it a kind of unaffected delivery not unlike Claudia Gonson’s turns for Magnetic Fields. Chiming guitars launch a song that invokes love and the highway not unlike The Charm of the Highways Strip, and the guitars swirl and reach a crescendo that lends potent ache to a lyric that on paper sounds lighthearted: “Highway 405 will take you/ From the Boom Boom Room/ To Interstate 5 which goes right to/ The San Diego Zoo.” Yet those silly-sounding landmarks are part of a lover’s journey, their names magnified to something worthy of a pop-song; that’s what music does, amplify the mundane, and that’s what Merritt consistently achieves in his gimlet-eyed lyrics.
The singer-songwriter takes the lead for the synth-pop of “Aging Spinsters,” one of a handful of songs here that would have fit perfectly on 69 Love Songs. Yet despite the varied singers, each track is of a piece with its leader’s aesthetic; Luna’s Dean Wareham sounds born to sing Merritt on the wistful jangle of “Falling Out of Love (With You),” and so does Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley on “Movies in My Head.” The album’s undeniable single may be “Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket.” Led by Robert Scott of New Zealand favorites The Clean, its chiming guitars and unassuming vocals are as perfect an encapsulation of Merritt melodrama as “When My Boy Walks Down the Street.”
Contrary to the label’s claims, this isn’t the first time the album has been available on vinyl. On its original release in 1995, London issued it on a limited edition set of four 7” EPs that included “Yet Another Girl,” sung by Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham. That track would turn up later on Merritt’s Obscurities collection but wasn’t on the CD and isn’t on Captured Tracks’ vinyl reissue; don’t worry, it’s not essential. Merritt would revisit the 6ths concept in his follow-up to 69 Love Songs with the less consistent but equally tongue-twisting Hyacinths and Thistles (2000), but it had its missteps; compare Dominique A’s lead on the overproduced studio version of “Just Like a Movie Star” to a live recording from 1997 where Merritt takes the lead in front of a much sparer, cello-driven arrangement. Wasps’ Nests was not peak Merritt, but its best songs and performances hold up as well as anything he’s ever made.