By: Eric Greenwood
Even genius songwriters with buckets of talent to spare have their weak moments, and Future Bible Heroes has long been Stephin Merritt's flimsiest endeavor. I think it's because of his lack of control over the proceedings. Merritt shares the songwriting with his old pal Christopher Ewen from the 80’s synth pop act Figures On A Beach. Actually, Merritt only contributes the lyrics, leaving all of the instrumentation up to Ewen, who is just as obsessed with 80's synth cheese as he is. Relegating all the vocals to his mother hen, Claudia Gonson, is somewhat disappointing, as her voice fails to command the songs quite like Merritt's would.
The opening electro pop ditty, "Losing Your Affection" is perfectly bland. Gonson's flat and uninteresting voice only works on Merritt's quirkiest compositions in The Magnetic Fields. Without any of Merritt's flair, Gonson's vocalizations blend into the generic retro-schlock without making much of an impression. Ewen's programmed music gurgles and bubbles in a wet electric display, as on "Doris Daytheearthstoodstill", but again Gonson's double-tracked, blasé vocals leave much to be desired. Even Merritt's lyrics, which normally charm your pants off, seem forced and recycled, though the undead theme is a nice touch.
Eternal Youth shows signs of a pulse on "I'm A Vampire." The music is a winking nod to The Human League, but at least it's fast and catchy albeit in a sugary, dancey fashion. Gonson finally sounds interested in her own singing, and it marks the first time Merritt's clever wordplay jumps out at you: "Dear, for whose victims I shed no tear/I am neither sweet nor sincere/and I'd rather drink blood than beer/cause I'm a vampire." Gonson's inflection on "For Some Dying Star" is directly imitative of Merritt's own, and it makes you wish he'd just sing the damn songs himself.
If there's a single on Eternal Youth it's "Smash The Beauty Machine." The bouncy pop has panache and loads of hooks, including this golden Merritt nugget: "as the stars come out ad nauseum/everyone stands and applauds/suddenly we're all remembering/why we need all those Gods." Merritt's brief backing vocal appearance on "Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes" is an unnecessary teaser. Don't taunt us, just sing! Ewen has his finest moment musically on "No River." The subtle wash of keyboards is exquisitely gloomy, and the syncopated beats perfectly underscore the Twin Peaks aura he's created.
Eternal Youth is a niche record for Stephin Merritt junkies and those that still crave campy 80's electronic sounds. It's far from the level of a Magnetic Fields release – or even The 6ths for that matter – and, therefore, won't appeal to casual fans. It's not awful, but there's enough filler here to whittle this down a single with two or three solid b-sides. Releasing a whole album’s worth of material is a tad presumptuous.