The last 12 months have been happy ones for fans of Stephin Merritt. We may not be a significant demographic, at least by industry standards, but goddamn it, we sure are loyal. And lucky us: Our devotion is richly rewarded with a total of five CDs from Merritt in less than a year. Last winter, his main band, the Magnetic Fields, graced us with their three-CD tour de force, the sublime and shambolic 69 Love Songs; this fall brings us new CDs from two of his three side projects, the Sixths and the Future Bible Heroes. That they're both great (to varying degrees) doesn't really matter by this point. As any Merritt addict will admit, our idol could probably put on a one-man spoken-word performance of Bye Bye Birdie and we'd eat it up, obsessive gluttons that we are. Fortunately, though, Merritt doesn't just toss us a bone -- with the Sixths' new record, he serves up a 14-course feast.
Five years after their debut, Wasps' Nests, the Sixths -- which consist of Merritt and whomever he feels like collaborating with -- present the equally sibilant Hyacinths and Thistles. (We wonder: Does Merritt, who's openly gay, think lisping promotes sodomy, or does he just take malicious pleasure in tormenting those of us with speech impediments?) Where Wasps' Nests was sticky and Spectoresque, thick with layers of vocal tracks and jangling guitar overdubs, Hyacinths and Thistles is stripped-down and intimate, usually pairing each of the 14 guest vocalists with a single instrument (accordion, piano, guitar, zither). Unlike Wasps' Nests, on which indie rockers like Helium's Mary Timony, Luna's Dean Wareham and Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley delivered Merritt's songs in studiously dispassionate, uninflected tones, Hyacinths and Thistles offers a wider range of vocal styles -- from '60s folk freaks Melanie and Odetta to '80s new-wave has-beens Clare Grogan, Gary Numan and Marc Almond to hipsters du jour Sally Timms, Momus and Miho Hatori. Instead of treating the voices as supporting instruments in a dense wall of sound, Merritt lets the singers interpret his songs, invest them with their own personalities.
This time, the voices seem to dictate the arrangements, not the other way around. There's Melanie's broken-down phone message in "I've Got New York" -- "Surprise, it's me/It's drunk, I'm three" -- slurred with a groggy bravado against the demented jingling of Margaret Leng Tan's toy piano. There's Bob Mould, whose gently despondent take on "He Didn't" suggests Mr. Rogers channeling Cole Porter. Timms' trademark warble drifts lazily over the glacial synth-pop throb of "Give Me Back My Dreams" like dry ice in a gay karaoke bar. On the cabaret-styled piano vamp "The Dead Only Quickly Decay," Neil Hannon croons hilariously atheistic lines -- "They don't go about being born and reborn and rising and falling like soufflé" -- with campy delectation. Former Odetta trills the quaint and fussy "Waltzing Me all the Way Home" while an accordion wheezes wearily along.
Despite the radically different vocal styles and varying instrumentation, Hyacinths and Thistles seems like a cohesive album, not just an exercise in compiling the weirdest array of guest stars known to pop (although it certainly succeeds in that respect, too). Romantic and dyspeptic, corny and caustic, every song is quintessentially Merritt, no matter who's giving it voice. When Grogan sings, "Lightning is taking pictures of everything from every point of view," she could be describing the record itself: Each singer reveals another facet of Merritt's genius; each song is a snapshot of the same man from a new perspective.