During my time in the military (1988-1990), any guy who was presumed to be gay was mocked, spied upon and left rather friendless. Of those I knew, one tried to kill himself at night on a field exercise, and another spent his social life alone in the movie theatres. The two known lesbians, if it meansanything, had it far better; they walked without mystery, and the guys found them boring. Had they been pretty, perhaps it would have been another story.
I mention all this before Eban & Charley because it's another Merritt CD that's so good, it could radically alter the world if it was broadcast from the moon. No homophobic idiot could hear it and not want to know if that gay guy down the block knows Merritt personally. Really, who wouldn't be thrilled to sit down with him for tea? He is the most distinguished American songwriter of our time, able to capture both the Oulipian spirit ("Teasing bees is easy", wheezed Louise. "These bees are teased") and the timelessness of Cole Porter(It's not psychosis / It's just fear / But leave those roses here"). He is the machine that Britain's Paddy McAloon wants to be, but usually isn't: one whose songs can be sung by anyone, and still sound beautiful.
Typically, with soundtracks, a musician will alter course from some personal vision and create work specifically to enhance the film. The results can often be brilliant (like Randy Newman's Ragtime), but seldom do they rise above the artist's previous work. Such is the fate when visions are shared. Since Merritt is the Georges Perec of song -- a man of craft who composes the way others play board games -- we lose no personality here. His vision remains the same, with songs that break the heart because... it's just a skill of his.
The album's most affecting track, "Maria Maria Maria", also happens to be its most absurd, and reminds me of an unlikely film: True Lies. Its subject matter parallels the scene in which the disguised Schwarzenegger character pretends to be his wife's lover, and forces her to strip. Where the True Lies scene repulsed, this song takes the material and moves you as much as an "O Tannenbaum" (which, coincidentally, Merritt also performs here). It is the only song on Eban... that equals the power of a "Papa Was the Rodeo" -- but you can't fret, as it's joined by tracks of highly pleasing variations. "Cricket Problem" melds the morning chimes of clocks with birds and crickets before waking up with some nice toy piano, and "Poppyland" giggles like a good hash high ("when the bloom is off the rose, man, Poppyland is where it goes"). Heck, even the final seven minutes of stage rain is a fun listen.
When Merritt fans hear Eban & Charley for the first time, they will be most surprised by the instrumentals, and the Tom Waits vibe surrounding them (if "Drowned Sailors" isn't a rain dog, I don't know what is). I don't know if this is Merritt being "cinematic", or just what naturally occurs when one plays lots of obscure instruments, but damned if the results don't capture the hectic noise of living. It leaves me very anxious for all of Merritt's possible ventures to come -- the love songs without the letter "e", his genuine attempt at autobiography, his Broadway musical, his album of sung recipes -- but also contented to just sit back and enjoy the thoroughly impressive body of work he has already committed to disc.