Who they are: For the uninitiated, the Magnetic Fields is the much-beloved indie pop band and musical brainchild of singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt. Merritt, whose resonant bass voice echoes Johnny Cash and all that ring-of-fire jazz, has made his mark as one of the greatest American lyricists to emerge in the last decade. Today the band is comprised of multi-talented musicians Claudia Gonson (on percussion, piano, and contributing vocals), John Woo (playing the guitar and sweet sweet banjo), Sam Davol (lending his musical stylings on both the cello and flute), and Merritt.
Fun fact! The group’s name, “Magnetic Fields” comes from the book Les Champs Magnétiques by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault. And that very novel is famous for being the first recognized piece of literary Surrealism. * Cue non sequitur! *
Sound: It could be called many things but in short, the Fields’s music flies pretty close to the pop flame. It is worth noting, however, that Merritt’s hyperacusis – a hearing condition that makes him overly-sensitive to certain frequencies – has played a large part in defining the group’s trademark tongue-in-cheek sound. Their songs use little to no percussion and have continually relied on various instruments (and technologies) to create softer notes. The group has also made great use of the synth (especially in their earlier work), which is what placed them firmly in the “synthpop” genre for some time.
And while the melodies are charming, the true gold in the Magnetic Fields canon of work is the lyrics. Merritt’s bone dry sense of humor and sardonic wit infiltrate each song, which has elevated the band above the here today/gone tomorrow variety. In a 2006 interview with Pitchfork Media, Merritt (who is musically untrained) expressed how he approaches his songwriting: very scientifically and with a great deal of self-imposed restraints for each album. For example, “[1994’s] Charm of the Highway Strip [was] all travel songs.” All of the song titles on 2004’s i began with “I”. And there was a trilogy of “no-synth” albums from 2004 – 2010: beginning with i (2004), followed by Distortion (2008), and concluding in Realism (2010). And, of course, no discussion of concept albums would be complete without mentioning Merrit’s bittersweet opus: the much-beloved and criticially-heralded 69 Love Songs. It was – you guessed it! – 69 songs about love.
The Magnetic Fields is perhaps best known for this highly ambitious, charmingly cheeky, and deeply satisfying three-disc compilation album, released back in 1999 by Merge Records. But these aren’t ooey-gooey non-specific cliched songs like some others out there. Instead, the songs cover the vast emotional spectrum of love – all of its joy and its dirty bits. Dirty as in, “you always hurt the ones you love” emotional ugliness and dirty as in, “Hey there. Want to come upstairs and check out my CD collection?” bedroom get down dirtiness. From the lustful “Underwear” to the bumbling lovestruck fella in “Absolutely Cuckoo” to the heartbroken narrator in “Come Back from San Francisco“, it’s all there. And I never heard a song so beautifully capture the sobering truth of love, as was done so in “The Book of Love“. It was on 69 Love Songs that Merritt truly emerged as a prolific songwriter and the Magnetic Fields separated themselves from the pack.
For all of Merritt’s lovelorn proclivities, though, the songs from Magnetic Fields are not lacking in joy. In fact, they are able to pull off a palatable mix of whimsy with finely articulated (albeit, often bitter) emotional truths. The result are songs that are equal parts tender, cynical, charming, funny, and heartbreaking.
What’s Next: On March 6th, the group will release their next full-length studio album, Love At the Bottom of the Sea. It will mark a return to the band’s signature synth-integrated pop sound from the masterful 69 Love Songs. Check out my mention of Love At the Bottom of the Sea on my “Most Anticipated Albums of 2012” list (**I know. I know. Isn’t schilling for oneself the worst?). Here is the released track listing below (I’m already eager to listen to #13):
1 “Your Girlfriend’s Face”
2 “Andrew In Drag”
3 “God Wants Us To Wait”
4 “Born For Love”
5 “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh”
6 “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)”
7 “The Only Boy In Town”
8 “The Machine In Your Hand”
9 “Goin’ Back To The Country”
10 “I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies”
11 “The Horrible Party”
12 “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre”
13 “I Don’t Like Your Tone”
15 “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”
Additionally, this March the band is slated to perform at the prestigious All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead, England, a festival that will be curated by Neutral Milk Hotel‘s Jeff Magnum and is shaping up to be quite the event.
Songs not to miss include: “The Book of Love”, “Papa Was A Rodeo”, “Fear of Trains”, “Why I Cry”, “Absolutely Cuckoo”, “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing”, “All the Umbrellas in London”, “How Fucking Romantic”, “100,000 Fireflies”, and “Busby Berkley Dreams”