Other sites and blogs have heralded The Magnetic Fields’ newest release as one of the most anticipated albums of the year. I think this would (and should) be the case if more people actually knew about the stylings of the Stephin Merritt led band. But they don’t.
Why isn’t Stephin Merritt winning Grammys and on the cover of Rolling Stone? Part of it may be his musical genre—Merritt is a bit of a melodic Proteus (his music changes shape and timbre just enough to keep you on guessing from early synth-pop to acoustic small-rock); some of it may be sexuality (love songs for a man by a man? Egad!); but most of it is probably where the band sits on the geek-rock scale: just close enough to They Might Be Giants to be goofy and irreverent while near enough to Belle and Sebastian to make
people like my brother worried about crossing the faint line between Indie and Emo.
I haven’t met many fans of The Magnetic Fields. Perhaps it is my occupation; perhaps, as well, it is my age (although students in my classes don’t seem to have heard of the band). Or maybe I am just not the typical audience member. I first discovered Holiday (1994) from the Musical Treasure Trove (an iPod filled with music from a hipster’s apartment). When I told the girl who gave me access to it that I loved this band, she looked at me and gave me her best Jason Bateman (“Really?”).
The only other person I ever caught listening to The Magnetic Fields? A graduate of Oberlin. Enough said. Like Arcade Fire, according to Sasha Frere-Jones’ critique of the band (“A Paler Shade of White” in the New Yorker), The Magnetic Fields departs from the R&B tradition of rock n’ roll for something different, something at home only in Northern, urban or Canadian, Indie Rock. An aesthetic without real guitar solos, moving beats, and danceable tunes. Whiter than white, for some. A little ‘gay’, to others .
I don’t know, then, what it means that I think I need to explain the music or the band, or my excitement at a new album’s release. I can explain the latter simply: with the exception of the Dirty Three’s recent release, I have had my heart broken too many times by my favorite artists in the past year. Mates of State’s Mountaintops would be good for a lesser band but can’t hold a candle to their last Re-Arrange Us or Team Boo. Feist’s Metals is too cluttered with sounds and divorced from melody for my taste (even though my friend The Rhythm Guitarist has tried to convince me to think otherwise).
These may seem like minor complaints except that I take it so personally. As my brother will attest, I dislike way too much music; in fact, I am something of a curmudgeon. But when I like something, I take full ownership of it, I adopt the artist and I inhabit the music. When I have digested everything an artist has to offer I await the next release with the avidity of a drug fiend looking for a fix. When that fix comes and isn’t what I expected, or needed, or whatever, I am just plain depressed.
The discography of The Magnetic Fields is just too large and of too even a quality even to begin to discuss on a blog. Indeed, even though I love the work, I have not listened to every song: the Magnetic Fields is just that prolific. And good—I keep saving albums and songs for later in the year or later in life when I cannot find anything new to delight me.
I do have some favorites, however. Off the album Holiday , the song “Strange Powers” is transcendent. Also memorable, or at least one of my favorites is “The Trouble that I’m looking for”. From the album I (2004; where every song begins with the letter “I”), the trio “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore”, “I looked All over Town” and “I thought You Were My Boyfriend” are sweet songs that best exemplify the combination of musical whimsy, clever sentimentality, and clear melody that set Stephin Merritt’s song writing apart.
Quintessentially odd and typically overwhelming is the band’s release 69 Love Songs (1999) (yes, a title with juvenile implications)—with the fun and playful “Luckiest Guy on the Lower east Side” or “Buzby Berkeley Dreams” weighed against the heavier “I’m Sorry I love You” or “You’re My Only Home”, this is a musical release that defies any simple listening or categorization. Obviously, I have never listened to it from beginning to end. The bewildering swing from one synth sound to another, from one set of vocals to another, and from subject to subject in each song is not for the faint hearted. There are at least 6 albums in 69 Love Songs by as many if not more artists.
So, perhaps Merritt is a man who has done too much, whose work in both its quality and quantity has been too difficult to distill to a simple, sellable product (and for that, I say bravo). But now, after 20 years of recording, a new album arrives. And what do I find?
All of the songs are brisk (under 3 minutes); if you like the song, you want more; if you don’t like it (the Weird Al-esque 4th track “Your Girlfriend’s Face”), you’re relieved quickly.“God wants us to wait” starts the album with a nearly robotic vocal (perhaps reflecting the slavish obedience of the speaker to abstinence) within attractive but slightly cluttered synthesizer music. The second track, “Andrew in Drag” allows the synthesizers to recede a bit for a clever lyric (“A pity she does not exists / a shame he’s not a fag / the only girl I’ll ever love is Andrew in Drag”) that balances the playfulness of the lyrics against the saccharine choral.
“Born For Love” is too cluttered (vocally and instrumentally); the following track “I’d go Anywhere with Hugh” plays with the homophonics of ‘you’ and ‘Hugh’, a conceit that is silly and annoying but which, with, well-placed with the female vocal, light backing music , contributes to a nice lark of a song. Similar fun is to be found on “The Horrible Party” where a vocalist begs to leave a rather typical but heavily dramatized party over a piano and handclaps (and some odd random sounds). Unfortunately the track ends in a joke: the party was “heaven / until they ran out of champagne”.
If you wait too long to develop a core for an album, it never really comes. Track 6 establishes a nice balance between unified chorus and the David Byrne-sque vocals. Over the album similar balance is attempted between male and female vocals alongside heavy synthesizer alternating with more traditional instrumentation. The simplicity and fun of a song like “Andrew in Drag” are less balanced with unsuccessful tracks like “The Only Boy in Town” where the vocalist confesses that she would be loyal if her addressee were the only boy in town. Still, a desire to be clever works at other times: “Machine in Your Hand” casts love from the perspective of a smartphone. But, weighed against the potential for melody shown in the following track “Goin’ Back to The Country”, such songs seem hollow. Even these are easily wiped away by fine songs like “Quick”, a break-up song, which eschews many of the extra sounds and provides a vocal not unlike the female vocalist from The New Pornographers.
This album wouldn’t be a Magnetic Fields release without some of the more theatrical bass vocals like those found on “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies”, another track whose seeming superficiality belies a fine musical structure and some deeper (allegorical?) thought. The songs are best when they are playful (track 2) and amusing when they take on ‘issues’ (the first track mocks abstinence; track 8 “Machine in Your Hand” depicts the difficulty of love and passion when our most intimate relationships are with iPods, phones etc.). Generally, though, I don’t really like songs about specific things—the topical songs are weaker in that they seem mundane and even debased by their subjects. But that may just be me.
The Magnetic Fields are strongest with simple melodies and almost unrivalled when it comes to writing songs from different subjective points of view. If I were not a fan of the band, however, I would call too many of these tracks self-indulgent. Perhaps the band just doesn’t believe in the beauty of their art; perhaps the lightness and irreverence is the point. But when I listen to this album, I hear too much of what I see in the modern creative arts in general: an overreliance on irony and wit.
If you are a fan of the band, you will have to own this album. If you are not and are interested, you may be better off starting with Holiday.