Indie Canon Inductee: The Magnetic Fields

21 Mar

The Magnetic Fields was founded by Stephin Merritt in Boston in 1990 where he and bandmate/high school friend, Claudia Gonson, were living at the time (check out the adorable photo-booth still of the two above).

I might as well get this out of the way right now…Stephin Merritt is getting inducted into the Indie Canon for being the songwriter, lead vocalist, producer and mutli-instrumentalist behind The Magnetic Fields as well as the driving force of The 6ths (more on that later), Future Bible Heroes and The Gothic Archies.  Congratulations, Stephin!

Aside: Daniel Handler, more famous for his Series of Unfortunate Events children’s books using the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, had accompanied The Magnetic Fields with his accordion on 69 Love Songs.  Merritt was asked to lend his songwriting prowess to repay the favor in an Unfortunate Events-themed side project which became known as The Gothic Archies.  To give you an idea as to what a wincingly painful, yet humorous task it is to interview Stephin Merritt, check out his appearance on Good Morning Atlanta to promote [?] The Gothic Archies…

Stephin Merritt always looks tired and it’s understandable; he has written over 15 albums worth of material in two decades.  What I love about this picture is the juxtaposition of Merritt’s frown exuding routine heartache, smug pretension and utter exhaustion with the sleepy grin of his adorable chihuahua, Irving.

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Onto the albums…

Though 1991’s The Wayward Bus was released on a single CD with The Magnetic Field’s 1990 debut album, Distant Plastic Trees, I only intend to induct the ten tracks that make up The Wayward Bus.  Despite the fact that Distant Plastic Trees is a decent album on its own and contains some of Merritt’s best songwriting (particularly in The Magnetic Fields’ first single “100,000 Fireflies”) the sound is a little flat compared to The Wayward Bus.

What’s markedly different about the first two albums is lead singer Susan Anway.  After Wayward… Anway reportedly left the band to study dental sculpture and Merritt became the band’s primary vocalist.  Songs like “When You Were My Baby,” “The Saddest Story Ever Told” (one of my all-time favorite MF songs) and “Candy” are an obvious homage to Phil Spector’s production and Anway’s vocals have an Americanized Nico air.  As the album progresses, the instrumentation and lyricism expand and tracks like “Jeremy” and “Suddenly There is a Tidal Wave” act as a perfect segue into Magnetic Fields’ stronger, mid-90’s work.

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Since the first two Magnetic Fields albums there have been four core members.

Above: (from left to right) John Woo, Claudia Gonson, Stephin Merritt, Sam Davol.

In 1994 The Magnetic Fields released two synth-heavy albums: The Charm of the Highway Strip and Holiday.

The Charm of the Highway Strip, as the title may suggest, focused on themes of travel: lonely highways, open roads, trains and drifters.  Merritt’s songwriting took a much more narrative, country approach than ever before in tracks like “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” and “Fear of Trains.”  The album is a tad front-heavy, though thoroughly listenable.  The best tracks are the opener “Lonely Highway” and “Born On A Train.”

Holiday was an improvement over The Charm of the Highway Strip and showed the emergence of what has become the more-or-less “classic” Magnetic Fields’ 80’s synth pop sound (which was later abandoned and not revisited until their most recent record, Love at the Bottom of the Sea).  Merritt’s tongue-in-cheek humor sharpened the lyrics of songs like “Strange Powers” – “On a ferris wheel looking out on Coney Island / Are there more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand?”  Aside from the Depeche Mode-ish dropout, “In My Car,” Holiday is start-to-finish entertaining thanks to tracks like “Desert Island,” “Swinging London” and “All You Ever Do is Walk Away.”

Most pop artists shy away from double albums because they 1) try on the patience of the modern, attention deficit listener, and 2) prove to be at least two times the work to produce.  The double album is what pro-wrestling fans would refer to as a “high-risk maneuver” – high cost, high reward.  So, what happens if a band releases a triple album??  Few artists have ever had the stones to do it (indie goddess Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me and Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage are two that I’m aware of) but I have yet to hear one that matches the sheer ambition of 1999’s 69 Love Songs: literally 69 songs (nearly three hours of music!) and off-the-wall pop exploration.  Sure, each volume has some fat that could be trimmed, but considering the toalbum’s breadth, the ratio of great songs to shlock is absolutely startling.

Aside: 69 Love Songs had a number of guest musicians and vocalists including Shirley Simms who has since become a member of the band’s regular roster.

69 Love Songs tours nearly every pop genre subset under the sun and it would be easier to make a list of instruments not used on the album.  Merritt’s lyrics are funnier and more tragic than ever making him a perfect candidate to deconstruct the bipolarity of “love” (that sounds so, so pretentious and I’m sorry).  Simply put, 69 Love Songs is one of the most impressive musical achievements of the past two decades.

I will highlight the real gems and/or slip off into tangential anecdotes by volume…

“Absolutely Cuckoo” is the quick and zany “had me at hello” opener to 69 Love Songs that hooked me when I discovered the album five years late in 2004 (the first Magnetic Fields album that I owned).  This led to a Magnetic Fields ‘phase’ in college where I must have played the album start-to-finish over 50 times.  The first volume of 69 Love Songs has the strongest and most pop accessible opening stretch of the three volumes and shows how easily Merritt can transition from the accelerated silliness of “Absolutely Cuckoo” to the crooning ballad “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” and banjo folk of “All My Little Words”…and then back to the bouncy absurdity of “A Chicken With its Head Cut Off.”

Other Greats: “I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” and “The Book of Love”

The second volume is a bit “out there” when compared to its 23-track predecessor as telegraphed by the opening a Capella “Roses” and comic rock “Love is Like Jazz.”  The other thing that becomes readily apparent on the second disc is the gender-bending lyrics throughout.  At a first listen, I was blindly obsessed with “When My Boy Walks Down the Street.”  Multiple listens later I was confused as to why there was a male vocalist.  By the time “Long-Forgotten Fairytale” (Merritt sings “There’s an old enchanted castle and the princess there is me.”) and “Papa Was a Rodeo” played, I had an epiphany: Stephin Merritt is gay.  I blame my gaydar which has been historically unperceptive.

Aside: When asked years ago in an interview with The Advocate how Claudia Gonson felt about The Magnetic Fields being dubbed “gay synth,” she replied: “When we started Magnetic Fields we purposely had one lesbian, one gay guy, one straight woman, and one straight man. The audience could identify with whomever they wanted. I hang out with more gay women now, but I guess I’m more of a fag hag than a lezzie hag.”

The second volume of 69 Love Songs may be the weakest of the three (this is entirely arbitrary when referring to the album as a whole), but I’ve been caught belting some of the songs below in my car more than once.  Very F… *cough* Epi…*cough cough*  I don’t have bronchitis, I’m just a shy car-singer.

Other Delights: “Very Funny,” “(Crazy For You) But Not That Crazy,” “Promises of Eternity,”  and “Epitaph For My Heart

I remember one night in college where my former roommate and fellow SHH author, bobdoes, was trying to court a hipster girl (whom we fittingly referred to as “hipster girl”…not to her face, of course) at our apartment.  She heard the third volume of 69 Love Songs playing in my room and had to introduce herself and then immediately challenge my MF credibility (stupid hipster girls, why cannot you just accept that you’re not as unique as you think you are?).  Minutes later we had a dysfunctional singalong to the hysterical “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” where I proved 1) I knew the lyrics, and 2) I wasn’t as fetching as bobdoes, though he may have worried for a minute…

Other Treats: “It’s a Crime,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” “Meaningless,” “I Can’t Touch You Anymore” and “The Night You Can’t Remember”

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Five years after the release of 69 Love Songs, Merritt decided to take a three-album synth hiatus beginning with the release of  i and followed by Distortion and Realism.  Although I didn’t care for Distortion, I decided to splurge on a pair of tickets for the NYC Town Hall show during their 2010 tour.  The second ticket was initially intended for a little lady whom yours truly was attempting to woo.  Said little lady refused my generous invitation.  Idiot (her…wait, me?).  My friend bought a portion of the second ticket and I’m glad he did because it was a great show and I doubt that I would have made the trek to the city for the show alone.

Below is a recording of “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” from that concert which I assure you has absolutely no relation to the little lady in question; it just so happens to be one of my favorite MF songs (wonderfully self-conscious) played live at a concert which I attended.

Aside: For the record, I’ll only drink [dry] vermouth in gin martinis.  Ah, the healing power of the gin-soaked olive; Merritt himself sang that “Love is like a bottle of gin, but a bottle of gin is not like love.”  I myself think that love is more like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol: it sometimes coats your tongue and can immediately relieve “heartburn,” yet it can be somewhat ineffective to nausea and verbal diarrhea.

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My apologies in advance for the chronological sidestep, but I figured that now is a better time to address “more on that later” than later…

As I mentioned previously, The 6ths was one of the handful of Merritt’s side projects.  The first 6th’s album, Wasps’ Nests, is less a traditional album than a Merritt-produced collaboration with a who’s who of independent pop/rock (including Galaxie 500’s Dean Wareham, co-founder of Merge Records and Portastatic’s Mac McCaughan, Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow and The Bats’ Robert Scott too mention [more] than a few).   Merritt wrote all of the tracks on the album, but sings only one: “Aging Spinsters.”  For the rest of the album, Merritt takes a producer’s back seat and let’s his guest vocalists run with his material…and do they ever run; “San Diego Zoo,” “In the City in the Rain” and “Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket” are a few of my top played songs.  The fact that Wasps’s Nests was released before 69 Love Songs in 1995 (the same years as The Magnetic Fields’ much less spectacular Get Lost) always blows me away.  For these reasons, The 6ths and Wasps’ Nests have also been inducted.

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The Magnetic Fields are currently touring for their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (which I reviewed a few weeks ago).  Love at the Bottom of the Sea, though nothing spectacular, did mark the reemergence of synth.  If local dates are announced, I’ll likely be in attendance.

Well, that about wraps it up.  Two artists, five albums and one man have deservedly found their way into the Indie Canon! 

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