The Magnetic Fields

TrackAlbum
100,000 FirefliesDistant Plastic Trees
Born On A TrainThe Charm Of The Highway Strip
Take Ecstasy With MeHoliday
All The Umbrellas In LondonGet Lost
I Don't Want To Get Over You69 Love Songs
Busby Berkeley Dreams69 Love Songs
It's Only Timei
The Nun's LitanyDistortion
Andrew In DragLove At The Bottom Of The Sea
'00: Ghosts Of The Marathon Dancers50 Song Memoir

The Magnetic Fields photo 1

The Magnetic Fields with Stephin Merritt (centre) and guest vocalists
– photo by Robin Holland (NYC 1999)

 

 

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Magnetic Fields playlist

 

 

Contributor: Joel Dear

The Magnetic Fields are an American band best known for their 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs, which delivers exactly what its title promises: sixty-nine songs about hookups and breakups and everything in between. The whole experience clocks in at just under three hours, during which time all manner of different moods and genres rub up against each other like horny drunks in a heaving club.

For example, the album’s third disc opens with Underwear, a lecherous ode to underclothes that’s driven by the leering lollop of the world’s seediest-sounding drum machine; this is immediately followed by the cartoon heartbreak of It’s A Crime, described by frontman Stephin Merritt as ‘Swedish reggae’ (imagine I’ll Never Fall In Love Again jumping into bed with ABBA’s One Of Us). Next up is the piano-led Busby Berkeley Dreams – more on which later – and then it’s I’m Sorry I Love You, which has more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel.

So attempting to pinpoint The Magnetic Fields’ signature sound is a fool’s errand. Prior to 1999, Merritt mostly made synth-pop albums, but a) that still left plenty of room for variety – compare the country influences of The Charm Of The Highway Strip with the sugary Holiday, then consider that both albums came out in the same year – and b) pretty much every album since 69 Love Songs has made a point of sounding very little like its immediate predecessor.

Stephin Merritt’s low, lugubrious voice is a key selling point, though even this is not a constant; Merritt shared 69 Love Songs with four other vocalists, two of whom are still popping up as of 2020’s Quickies album, and Merritt didn’t sing at all until 1992’s The House Of Tomorrow EP, by which point The Magnetic Fields were already two albums old.

But the one thing you’re guaranteed to encounter on any given Magnetic Fields LP is a spirited tug of war between the two sides of Stephin Merritt.

On the one hand, Merritt is a very clever man whose dry wit and way with words are rivalled only by his encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music. His three-disc magnum opus is about love songs as much as it’s about love, and when you’re listening to the man’s lyrics, you’re never totally sure that he’s not taking the piss. In a 2010 Drowned in Sound interview, Merritt famously said: “I don’t believe in sincerity in music”.

And yet his songs can be absolutely devastating when he allows them to be. It’s one thing to pen amusing couplets like this excerpt from a song called Courtesans:

Courtesans only want compensation for their time
A few kind words, a few kind words – they need not rhyme

But it’s quite another to then pivot to something like this, also from Courtesans:

A sable coat, maybe a hat
Oh! I wish I could be like that
But courtesans are not like me
They don’t take love very hard

All of a sudden you spot the scars, and this seemingly inconsequential little ditty reveals itself be, in truth, a rather raw breakup song. And that’s why The Magnetic Fields are one of my favourite bands: Stephin Merritt can punch you in the gut like few other songwriters, and you rarely see the punches coming.

I found it very difficult to select just ten tracks for this write-up. I could have populated the list several times over with tracks from 69 Love Songs alone. But there’s a lot more to The Magnetic Fields than just that one album, so I’ve done my best to showcase both the witty side and the weepy side of Stephin Merritt while also drawing from the entire breadth of his band’s colourful catalogue.

 

100,000 FirefliesDistant Plastic Trees (1991)

The Magnetic Fields’ debut single begins with a joyous cacophony of piano chords and little twinkly bells. It sounds nothing short of euphoric. But then Susan Anway delivers the song’s opening lines:

I have a mandolin
I play it all night long
It makes me want to kill myself

There are gut-wrenching moments on every Magnetic Fields record, but Stephin Merritt’s songwriting was never so brutally direct as it was on his first two albums, Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus. Original vocalist Anway was a perfect fit for the lyrics – Merritt’s voice seldom sounds cheerful, but there’s something so utterly, achingly sad about Anway’s delivery on those early releases. On almost every song, she sounds like her whole world has just shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.

That 100,000 Fireflies is catchy as hell doesn’t change the fact that it’s a desperately sad song. When I listen to it, I feel like I can’t breathe. The bit about the mandolin that makes the narrator want to kill herself (or possibly himself; the lyrics, though sung by a woman, were written by a man, resulting in an early example of the gender ambiguity that became a feature of many Magnetic Fields songs) is designed to grab your attention, but the real coup de grâce comes at the end of the song, when the chord pattern changes and Merritt’s twee lyrics about fireflies and starry eyes give way to this hopeless plea, depleted of poetry and pretence:

You won’t be happy with me
But give me one more chance
You won’t be happy anyway

Susan Anway left The Magnetic Fields after 1992’s The Wayward Bus. She now sings for a German electro band called Diskarnate, who are nothing like The Magnetic Fields but may be worth a look if you want to hear what Anway sounds like these days.

 

Born On A Train The Charm Of The Highway Strip (1994)

Just about every Magnetic Fields album since 69 Love Songs has had some sort of overarching gimmick. For example, every song on 2004’s i has a title beginning with that letter. Distortion – home to the aforementioned Courtesans – is covered in fuzz à la the Jesus and Mary Chain. Quickies, the band’s most recent LP at time of writing, exclusively features tracks under three minutes long.

But The Charm Of The Highway Strip, originally released in April 1994, was the original Magnetic Fields concept album. It’s all about being permanently on the road, a theme reflected in The Charm’s wonderfully minimal cover art: yellow dashes on a black background, a highway stretching off into a never-ending night.

The album’s songs are populated by drifters, cowboys, runaways, travelling salesmen, ghosts, vampires, and other lonely souls of no fixed abode. Standout track Born On A Train finds a self-described ‘walking dead’ warning his lover that he never sticks around for very long:

I’ve been making promises I know I’ll never keep
One of these days, I’m gonna leave you in your sleep
I’ll have to go when the whistle blows
The whistle knows my name
Baby, I was born on a train

This chorus is underpinned by a steady, chugging beat that does indeed sound like a steam train pulling away from its platform. A classic pop song all round, and it wouldn’t be the last.

 

Take Ecstasy With MeHoliday (1994)

Here’s another sad song that doesn’t sound it. Stephin Merritt spends the first verse of Take Ecstasy With Me reminding you of all the things that you and he used to do together: you used to make gingerbread houses, you used to slide down the stairs, et cetera. It’s all very cutesy and childlike.

And then – just like 100,000 Fireflies – it rips your heart out and shows it to you.

A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes
We got beat up just for holding hands

Take Ecstasy With Me is a song about getting violently assaulted because of who you love. (Note that Stephin Merritt is openly gay.) ‘Raccoon eyes’ are dark circles around the eyes caused by internal bleeding. You weren’t drinking from that vodka bottle; someone attacked you with it. When you were younger, you and Stephin used to have fun making gingerbread houses and stuff, but those two carefree kids are gone now. Now you take drugs together instead.

It’s genuinely upsetting stuff, and the song’s sickly-sweet synths do little to soften the blow. Really, they just heighten the sense of innocence lost.

Oh, and if the version from Holiday isn’t sad enough for you, fear not: there’s an alternate version of this song with vocals from Susan Anway, and she still sounds every bit as crushed as she did on 100,000 Fireflies!

 

All The Umbrellas In LondonGet Lost (1995)

This, I reckon, is the quintessential Magnetic Fields song. The Book Of Love from 69 Love Songs is certainly Stephin Merritt’s best-known composition (not least because Peter Gabriel did a cover of it), but All The Umbrellas In London is just as memorable, just as meta, and – crucially – a good deal gloomier.

The song opens with a deeply sarcastic electro beat, followed by these lyrics:

If I live through the night, I could be all right
It’ll make a good song or something
I’ve been trying to give myself reasons to live
But I really can’t think of one thing

All The Umbrellas is an anthem for young, depressed people who are too cynical to be punk and lack the commitment required of goths. I don’t think I heard this song until I was pushing twenty, but it reminds me very much of being that teenage boy who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he’s not as happy as they are. It’s similar to Born On A Train, not just because both songs are dense with synthesisers but because they both have choruses that are worthy of the popular music hall of fame. When Merritt sings about all the umbrellas in London, all the dope in New York, all the money in Tokyo … you get the impression that this guy could be anywhere in the world and still feel only a greyish malaise.

 

I Don’t Want To Get Over You69 Love Songs (1999)

As I said before, 69 Love Songs evokes many different moods and emotions. Of those sixty-nine songs, some sound ecstatic, some wax philosophical, some sit there with tears rolling down their cheeks and insist – like Buttercup from The Princess Bride – that they will never love again. Some are just plain randy.

But the comically miserable Stephin Merritt who sang All The Umbrellas In London is still here too, and he’s still got a lot of black clothes in his wardrobe, and he’s still in love with his own melancholy. He’s a few years older now, and he’s wallowing in the sadness of a recent breakup – hence I Don’t Want To Get Over You, track six of sixty-nine.

I’ve no idea how Merritt wrote I Don’t Want To Get Over You. The words and the melody fit each other so perfectly that it’s impossible to conceive of one existing before the other. I can only assume that the song revealed itself one night, fully formed, in a dream or perhaps some sort of alcohol-induced vision.

Even if I Don’t Want To Get Over You did have any faults, I suspect I’d be blind to them. This is another track that, to quote James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem, “makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real-life, emotional teenager … then you think again”.

I could dress in black and read Camus
Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth
Like I was seventeen
That would be a scream

 

Busby Berkeley Dreams69 Love Songs (1999)

While Get Lost featured a couple of synth-free tracks, 69 Love Songs was the point where The Magnetic Fields’ sonic palette truly exploded. Yes, those three discs still feature synthesisers galore, but you’ll also hear accordions, banjos, flutes, kalimbas, zithers, tin whistles and all sorts of other instruments over the course of this album.

Busby Berkeley Dreams is a piano-driven composition. That may not seem remarkable; countless pop legends have accompanied themselves on piano. But there’s not a single track on any prior Magnetic Fields release that sounds remotely like Busby Berkeley Dreams.

Merritt’s voice really shines here. On older albums like Holiday, he occasionally struggled to make himself heard above the storm of synths, but he’s right at the front of this number and he fucking nails it, sliding up and down his vocal range with apparent ease. Thematically, Busby Berkeley Dreams isn’t a million miles away from I Don’t Want To Get Over You – both songs’ protagonists are struggling to move on from dead relationships, but only one of them appears to be enjoying their misery, and it ain’t this guy.

I should have forgotten you long ago
But you’re in every song I know

(See what I mean when I say that this album is really about love songs rather than love itself?)

Whining and pining is wrong
And so on and so forth
But no, you can’t have a divorce

The character Merritt’s portraying here is a hopeless, tragic romantic. He only listens to love songs. He collects True Romance magazines. His marriage is in tatters, yet he still clings to the fantasy of taking his partner by the hand and getting lost in an extravagant Hollywood dance routine. It’s sad, sure, but it’s not Take Ecstasy With Me sad because it’s nowhere near as real. The emotions on display this time around are exaggerated, cartoonish; this is a song that belongs in a musical, and I mean that as the very highest compliment.

 

It’s Only Timei (2004)

How do you follow 69 Love Songs? First, accept that people are going to be disappointed no matter what you give them. Per Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields’ seventh album i “was written knowing no one would ever prefer it to 69 Love Songs, or even pretend to”.

Still, I have a soft spot for i – perhaps because it never had a chance – and I’d argue that it does trump its predecessor on one score. If I were going to include a Magnetic Fields song in a wedding ceremony, I wouldn’t pick anything from 69 Love Songs (not even The Book Of Love, whose lyrics actually mention wedding rings); I’d pick It’s Only Time, i’s closing track and the purest love song Stephin Merritt has ever written.

Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now?
It’s only time

Not only is this track as pretty as pink confetti, it’s one of the few Magnetic Fields songs that appears to be entirely free of irony. Perhaps I’m wrong – perhaps Merritt intended to mock couples who promise to remain eternally devoted to one another – but I’ve never picked up any Our Wedding vibes from It’s Only Time. It’d be a shame to waste that lovely arrangement on a song you didn’t really mean.

 

The Nun’s LitanyDistortion (2008)

To this day, Stephin Merritt remains one of the cleverest, funniest songwriters in the business, but truly heartbreaking moments become a little harder to find when you get to The Magnetic Fields’ more recent stuff. Merritt’s bruised emotional side is still present on albums like Distortion, but you may have to dig beneath the surface to find it.

The Nun’s Litany features lead vocals from Shirley Simms, who previously sang Come Back From San Francisco and half a dozen other tracks on 69 Love Songs. Here she plays the role of a wistful nun who regrets choosing a life of chastity and laments that she didn’t become a sex worker instead.

On the face of it, The Nun’s Litany is not a piece that demands to be taken seriously. There’s a comedic sigh in Simms’ voice as she fantasises about being a ‘topless waitress’, a ‘porno starlet’, a ‘playboy’s bunny’. At one point, she rhymes ‘dominatrix’ with ‘all those gay tricks’. It’s that kind of song.

But then:

I want to be a brothel worker
I’ve always been treated like one

Blimey. I feel like there’s a feminist theory dissertation to be written about those two lines. How did we get from ‘I want to play spin the bottle’ to ‘if I’d known that the world treats women like prostitutes no matter what they do, I might have turned professional and at least made some money out of it’?

That’s the thing about The Magnetic Fields, see. You never know when things will abruptly get real.

 

Andrew In DragLove At The Bottom Of The Sea (2012)

Billed as the band’s “triumphant return to synthesisers”, 2012’s Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is very pointedly not a concept album. The cover art has nothing to do with the title. The title has nothing to do with the songs. The songs have nothing to do with one another. Aside from the fact that every track is two minutes something, there was no running theme or gimmick this time (unless of course you count ‘lacking a gimmick’ as a gimmick in its own right).

Lead single Andrew In Drag is a gender-bending tragicomedy that’s sung from the POV of a rich straight boy who falls in love with his best mate’s drag persona. It’s a very catchy tune, and the lyrics deftly showcase Merritt’s talent for extended rhymes – here are just some of the lines with which the song’s title is paired:

• “It’s really not my bag”
• “He’s the only boy I’d shag”
• “I would even sell the Jag”

And yet, as with all the best latter-day Magnetic Fields songs, there’s a sad sting in the tail:

I’ll never see that girl again, he did it as a gag
I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag

 

’00: Ghosts Of The Marathon Dancers50 Song Memoir (2017)

50 Song Memoir, despite being a naked attempt to repeat the success of 69 Love Songs, is unique among The Magnetic Fields’ dozen albums to date because those fifty songs are explicitly about Stephin Merritt himself. Speaking to NPR around the time of the album’s release, Merritt said: “I’m the least confessional singer-songwriter in history, maybe, so why not do the exact opposite of what I usually do?”

Or, as Merritt’s friend and occasional bandmate Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) put it when he interviewed the songwriter for 50 Song Memoir’s liner notes: “I have known you for close to 20 years or thereabouts, and only when you drop the occasional fact do I learn something about your life. I have only the barest sketch … I think I can sooner place all of the albums by The Human League in the order in which you like them than name three things about your childhood.”

So listening to Stephin Merritt sing his autobiography was a novel experience even for seasoned fans. 50 Song Memoir contains one track for each of the first fifty years of Merritt’s life, and each track’s title includes the corresponding year. For instance, the album opens with ’66: Wonder Where I’m From and closes with ’15: Somebody’s Fetish.

The songs touch on a range of different subjects, some trivial (’76: Hustle 76 is about one of those dance compilations they used to advertise on television) and some weighty (the album contains several references to the AIDS epidemic). ’00: Ghosts Of The Marathon Dancers is an odd one; the lyrics are very evocative, but it’s not immediately clear how they fit into the story of Merritt’s life.

The ghosts of the marathon dancers
In an abandoned dancehall
Go whirling around in the eddies of dust
When the wind comes in through a chink in the wall
All the music and the dancers are gone
But the dance goes on

The twist – because of course there’s a twist – arrives in the third verse. The schmaltzy music suddenly drops to a whisper, and Merritt explains (in a higher key than before) that the preceding was written for a film that sadly never saw the light of day:

An adaptation of a French musical
Produced by Ted Hope, directed by Ang Lee
All the rights and the money are gone
But the song goes on

The effect is quite startling. It’s like a movie cutting to two completely unfamiliar characters and revealing that everything you’ve seen so far was just a story one of them was telling the other. It’s like that moment when Wile E. Coyote realises he’s standing on air, and gravity belatedly kicks in.

But, again, that’s The Magnetic Fields for you. One can never be sure where one stands.

 

 

The Magnetic Fields photo 2

The Magnetic Fields (l to r): Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson,
Sam Davol, John Woo, Shirley Simms

 

 

APPENDIX – SIDE PROJECTS

Stephin Merritt is an exceptionally prolific songwriter who has released music under several different names. If a dozen Magnetic Fields albums (and one EP ) aren’t enough for you, check out these Stephin Merritt side projects…

Future Bible Heroes

A disco/electronica collaboration between Merritt, Claudia Gonson (who manages The Magnetic Fields and performs on many of their albums) and Chris Ewen, formerly of Figures on a Beach. As of July 2020, FBH have released three albums – 1997’s Memories Of Love, 2002’s Eternal Youth and 2013’s Partygoing – plus several EPs.

Eternal Youth is my favourite of the three albums, but you may find it slightly underwhelming at first; six of its sixteen tracks are brief instrumental interludes, and most of the actual songs have a very distant, almost alien feel to them. It’ll grow on you, though. Partygoing is more immediate and sounds more like The Magnetic Fields (not least because, unlike Eternal Youth, it features vocals from Merritt as well as Gonson).

Recommended tracks: I’m A Vampire // But You’re So Beautiful // All I Care About Is You // Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes

The 6ths

Legend has it that The 6ths were born when Stephin Merritt, disappointed that he had not yet been the subject of a tribute album along the lines of I’m Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, decided to record one himself. The 6ths have released two albums to date: Wasps’ Nests (1995) and Hyacinths And Thistles (2000). Note that both album titles, along with the name of the band, are deliberately difficult to say.

Every 6ths song is written by Stephin Merritt and performed by a different guest vocalist each time. Full disclosure: I haven’t heard Wasps’ Nests, which features the voices of Lou Barlow and Amelia Fletcher among others, but I do consider Hyacinths And Thistles a great album for lonely late nights. I especially adore He Didn’t, a song of doomed love that’s sung with beautiful vulnerability by – of all people – Hüsker Dü guitarist Bob Mould.

Recommended tracks: He Didn’t // Yet Another Girl // As You Turn To Go // You You You You You

The Gothic Archies

The Gothic Archies put out a couple of releases in the 1990s: Looming In The Gloom, an EP, and The New Despair, an ‘album’ so short (16 minutes) that it’s effectively an EP.

But this band are best known for 2006’s The Tragic Treasury, a compilation of songs that Merritt wrote for the audiobook versions of Daniel Handler’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events stories. The album is a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some very striking songs that are worth the price of admission even if you’re not a fan of the books (I personally have never read them, so I can’t comment on how Lemony Snicket-y The Tragic Treasury is). How Do You Slow This Thing Down? is particularly noteworthy for its lyrics, which – if you look at them from a certain angle – read eerily like a commentary on the recent rise of right-wing populism and the left’s failure to halt it. Or perhaps I’ve just spent too much time on Twitter.

Recommended tracks: We Are The Gothic Archies // Scream And Run Away // How Do You Slow This Thing Down? // A Million Mushrooms

Stephin Merritt

Finally, there are the bits and pieces that Merritt has released under his own name: two movie soundtracks, a bit-of-everything rarities compilation titled Obscurities, and an album called Showtunes.

The latter is the most worthy of your time. During the first half of the noughties, Merritt collaborated with Chinese-born theatre director Chen Shi-Zheng to create three new musicals: Orphan Of Zhao, Peach Blossom Fan and My Life As A Fairy Tale. The first two were based on centuries-old Chinese plays, while My Life As A Fairy Tale retold the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.

Showtunes is a compilation of songs from those three productions, and I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. The use of traditional Chinese instrumentation sets it apart from the rest of Merritt’s oeuvre, but you don’t have to listen too closely to hear his signature songwriting style poking through. There even a few classic Stephin Merritt tearjerkers hiding in amongst the earworms.

Recommended tracks: At Madam Plum’s // The Song From Venus // The Little Maiden Of The Sea // What A Fucking Lovely Day!

 

The Magnetic Fields – and other projects – official website

Aging Spinsters: A Stephin Merritt Fan-Blog

Stephinsongs: The Music & Lyrics of Stephin Merritt

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (DVD)

The Magnetic Fields biography (AllMusic)

Joel Dear lives in Cardiff. He makes music of his own under the name Shiny Tiger – you can listen to his songs on SoundCloud.

TopperPost #889

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jul 27, 2020

    This is a truly wonderful Toppermost. I love 69 Love songs, but knew so little else and this is a springboard for exploration. But I will protest against the exclusion of Book of Love. It was sung unaccompanied at my son’s wedding by a singer friend of his on a California mountain top. Then Richard Palmer-James sang it at my 70th Birthday party, and did it again at the palmer james group reunion gig in December 2019. The song works done as simply as the original, or as elaborately as the Peter Gabriel film soundtrack version. But thank you. Magnetic Fields will be playing today.

  2. Marc Fagel
    Jul 27, 2020

    This is an excellent piece, and captures a lot of my own thoughts on this remarkable band. I, too, would have struggled to narrow it down to 10 from 69 Love Songs alone (though Busby Berkeley is such a shockingly affecting song, it certainly does the trick… but then what about Papa Was A Rodeo and Death of Ferdinand? Gah, too many great ones!). I’ve been less taken by a lot of the post-69 albums, but that early stuff is amazing. I’d say my favorite Merritt project beyond 69 is the first 6ths album. I find it much better than the follow-up (both the music and the guest vocalists, a veritable who’s-who of the indie artists I was listening to at the time), so I highly recommend chasing it down.

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