The Magnetic Fields

There’s a scene in the trailer for the 2010 Magnetic Fields’ documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields where a cab driver asks Stephin Merritt, “Why are they making a documentary about you?” Merritt replies slovenly, “I write wonderful music.” The cabbie says, “What’s your name? Merritt? Never heard of it.”

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates the mainstream’s recognition of Stephin Merritt, and more specifically the Magnetic Fields, as Merritt also records solo and occasionally moonlights with the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes — whose new album, Memories Of Love, Eternal Youth, And Partygoing was just released.

The Magnetic Fields, though, are clearly Merritt’s chief focus, and Strange Powers wasn’t a Searching For Sugarman style breakout, which is unfortunate given the universal appeal the Magnetic Fields seem capable of someday attaining. But Merritt writes love songs that are steadfastly impersonal, once telling me in an interview, “They’re all assumed characters. Why would I write about my petty life?” Yet the characters he explores have lives riddled with tales of love gone wrong, love attained, love demystified, love dreamed of, and love lost. His magnum opus to date is certainly 69 Love Songs, but his discography even beyond that behemoth is staggering. The early years of Distant Plastic Trees, The Wayward Bus, Holiday, Get Lost, and The Charm Of The Highway Strip all provided an embarrassment of riches, and many are bona fide indie-rock classics. None other than Brian Wilson went so far as to declare The Charm Of The Highway Strip his favorite record of 1994.

1999’s 69 Love Songs was the band’s relative commercial and critical breakthrough, and certainly a potent demarcation. They’ve yet to again attain the lofty heights of that high water mark, but there have been some great albums since, in particular 2004’s i, 2008’s Distortion, and 2010’s Realism. He’s teamed now with what seems to be a permanent Magnetic Fields lineup composed of longtime manager and keyboardist/singer Claudia Gonson, John Woo on banjo and guitar, and Sam Davol on cello and flute.

Merritt is at this point responsible for a downright brilliant songwriting idiom. What’s most remarkable is how a man who comes across as so misanthropic can be so in tune with the crutch of the human condition. He’s written a veritable encyclopedia encompassing the vicissitudes and minefields of love and relationships over the course of his remarkable career. Narrowing such a vast discography to 10 tracks was a daunting task. This is sure to be divisive with so many greats to choose from (remember, his best album has SIXTY NINE SONGS), so please feel free to share your favorites in the comments section.

10. “It’s Only Time” (from i, 2004)

69 Love Songs traversed myriad genres, and its follow-up, i, cleaves closely to the cabaret chamber ballad path paved by its predecessor more often than not. The beginning of the band’s “no-synth trilogy,” i’s organic feel is almost a yin to the early days’ yang of electro sheen-laden numbers. Save the conceptual motif of all the songs starting with the letter i, the album’s a relatively low-key effort. The arresting closing number “It’s Only Time” certainly fits into the mold of Merritt’s less pessimistic tracks. It’s a plaintive, austere love song that finds Merritt questioning, “Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now?/ It’s only time,” over tranquil, tasteful accoutrements akin to some of John Cale’s more subdued orchestral arrangements. When he’s not in curmudgeon mode, Merritt has written some of the more affecting ballads of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and “It’s Only Time” ranks among his finest.

9. “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” (from Realism, 2010)

Harking vaguely to the sounds of The Charm Of The Highway Strip, Realism is an overlooked gem in the band’s catalog. “It must be something scandalous/ lurks in your shadows/ If you need a Santa Claus/ to buy your gallows,” Merritt acerbically croons during Realism’s brilliant opener “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” playing out like a bizarre Christmas carol for someone afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a methodical, winding folk song, in diametric opposition to the band’s fuzz-laden preceding album Distortion. It’s also the standout track on a fairly underrated album in the band’s canon. This isn’t a reinvention on par with Distortion, but the subtle tweaks on superb tracks like this one make the album more than worthy of investigation.

8. “Papa Was A Rodeo” (from 69 Love Songs: Volume 2, 1999)

A road odyssey exploring a countrified trope, this duet with Shirley Simms is something of an homage to Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, and has a spiritual antecedent thematically in “Born On A Train.” It’s a sad-eyed, methodical number, one that contemplates the provenance of the protagonist’s peripatetic tendencies (“Papa was a rodeo/ Mama was a rock and roll band … Never stuck around long enough for a one night stand”). Never judgmental, the protagonist proceeds to lament to Mike, the object of his affection, that, “And now it’s 55 years later/ We’ve had the romance of the century,” illustrating that in Merritt’s jaundiced world, even a near lifetime-spanning relationship can still be suffused with regret, grief, and sorrow, devastatingly reinforced when Merritt intones at the song’s denouement, “What a coincidence, your father was a rodeo too.”

7. “All The Umbrellas In London” (from Get Lost, 1995)

Seemingly a response to the ephemeral comfort of “Take Ecstasy With Me” from Holiday, “All The Umbrellas In London” finds Merritt waxing destitute, confessing that “All the dope in New York couldn’t kill this pain.” Human League-esque synth gurgles amalgamate with the album’s Wall Of Sound sheen, matching like the pieces of an abstract puzzle on Get Lost’s final track. As Merritt confesses, “I’ve got a sense of perfection / And nothing makes much sense at all,” he sounds utterly bereft, and with or without drugs he’s quite obviously uncomfortably numb, resigned to an acute bout of emotional hell.

6. “I Don’t Believe In The Sun” (from 69 Love Songs: Volume 1, 1999)

“I Don’t Believe In The Sun,” coming off the relatively lithe “Absolutely Cuckoo,” establishes the template for 69 Love Songs, as that of an album that feels more like a compilation than a proper LP. Tracks veer wildly haphazardly, traversing myriad genres. Merritt once expressed an affinity for Pavement’s Westing (By Musket and Sextant), and while this album is miles from that record’s sonically cut-up ethos, one can see how he took cues from it spiritually. “I Don’t Believe In The Sun” is certainly one of the more gorgeous songs on the album, fraught with grief and regret and general disillusionment. It also illustrates how well Merritt is able to subvert clichéd tropes and and render them so affecting. When the protagonist laments, “I don’t believe in the sun/ How could it shine down on everyone and never shine on me/ How could there be such cruelty,” the effect is unexpectedly devastating when paired with the lugubrious chamber arrangement and his uncanny vocal cadence.

5. “Smoke And Mirrors” (from Get Lost, 1995)

A demystification or demythologization of a relationship, “Smoke And Mirrors” conflates “love” with a cruel parlor trick, as Merritt dispiritedly croons “Special effects/ A little fear/ A little sex/ That’s all love is/ Behind the tears / Smoke and mirrors.” The backing vocals in French add a stark anomie to the song, suggesting just how detached and numb the protagonist has become to the relationship, reinforced by the denouement, “We put on a lovely show/ Now that’s all/ I had to go,” a line as devastating as Joy Division’s “Love will tear us apart … again.” Again, it’s so simplistic on paper, but Merritt’s genius is often flat-out ineffable, and never more so than on the brilliant “Smoke And Mirrors.”

4. “Born On A Train” (from The Charm Of The Highway Strip, 1994)

The Charm Of The Highway Strip is essentially the band’s road album, where travel, time, and distance are used to convey the deterioration of relationships. “Born On A Train” is a vagabond anthem on an album of rife with the overriding sense that home is in your head. The lock-step rhythm of the track conveys a certain stilted motion, as if the protagonist feels a degree of ambivalence over his declaration that, “I’ve been making promises that I know I’ll never keep/ One of these days I’m gonna leave you in your sleep.” He’s destitute, but recognizes matter-of-factly that he’s a drifter, and to paraphrase Todd Solondz’s film Palindromes, seems to believe you’re the same person backwards and forwards, no matter if there’s a change in venue or circumstances.

3. “Strange Powers” (from Holiday, 1993)

Holiday has something of a vacation retreat motif, and “Strange Powers” assumes the locale of Coney Island. Hell, the band’s documentary was even named after the track, and if there’s one song that captures their elusive appeal, this is it. There’s an alchemical power at work on their best songs, strange powers indeed, and they’re transposed to the creepily romanticism of the Wonder Wheel, Cyclone, and Sideshows By The Seashore. As Merritt risibly croons, “On the Ferris Wheel/ Looking out on Coney Island/ Under more stars than/ There are prostitutes in Thailand,” over a nutmeg-sweet electronic hook redolent of the poppier end of Brian Eno’s post-Roxy Music ’70s work, the track begins in almost a frivolous manner. Yet, it rapidly assumes a darker timbre, fading out as Merritt repeats, “And I can’t sleep/ ’Cause you’ve got strange powers/ You’re in my dreams/ Strange powers” like a mantra. Knowing the fate of most of his characters, this obsession isn’t likely to end well, but this magnificent number vividly captures the glorious rush of finding oneself smitten with a brand new love you hardly know.

2. “The Book Of Love” (from 69 Love Songs Volume 1 1999)

Perhaps the most revered song in the Magnetic Fields’ back catalog, and worthy of being a wedding’s first dance number, this song is essentially the flipside to the cynicism evinced on “Smoke And Mirrors.” While “Mirrors” demystifies love, on “The Book of Love” Merritt celebrates it without denying its clichéd nature, crooning “The book of love is long and boring/ No one can lift the damn thing,” before brazenly confessing, “I, I love it when you read to me/ And you, you can read me anything,” over an exquisitely austere arrangement of brittle acoustic guitar and pillow soft backing coos. It’s a song seemingly deserving of a grand orchestral treatment, but here it’s delivered in miniatures, and that’s precisely what makes it so transcendent.

1. “100,000 Fireflies” (from Distant Plastic Trees, 1990)

The song that introduced the Magnetic Fields to the world of college radio, it’s a number they arguably have never bettered. “100,000 Fireflies” received a roughed-up treatment from Superchunk as a B-side to their “The Question Is How Fast” single, but the graceful lapidary of the original still reigns supreme. Susan Anway’s vocals soar angelically, and the sprightly, synth-bell melody lines belie the mordant lyrics, in particular, “I have a mandolin/ I play it all night long/ It makes me want to kill myself.” But it’s pitch-black gallows humor, something Merritt’s made a career of. But when Anway belts out the heartbreaking line, “I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me,” it’s like a lover’s gentle whisper under the covers, an abject plea for connectedness. It ends humorously, as Anway admonishes, “You won’t be happy with me/ But give me one more chance/ You won’t be happy anyway/ Why do we still live here? In this repulsive town? All our friends are in New York.” With that lyric, she effectively articulates the dichotomy at the heart of the Magnetic Fields — in love or out of love, with sex or without sex, you won’t find happiness, and things will probably get worse — but the hell if we’ll ever stop searching.

Listen to this playlist on Spotify here.

Comments (60)
  1. Everyone knows that this should be the 69 best Magnetic Fields songs.

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  3. Andrew in Drag!

  4. My favorite is All My Little Words.

  5. Distortion is awesome. There should have been something on here from that.

  6. No Too Drunk to Dream?????

  7. Busby Berkley Dreams should be somewhere on this list.

  8. Ugghhh. After such a great Fiona Apple top 10, this list is a huge disappointment.

    Really, 100,000 Fireflies is the best Magnetic Fields song EVER? Maybe the best Magnetic Fields song released in 1990, but every album since their debut has had a song that deserves a higher place than it on this list.

    • Fiona doesn’t have nearly as many songs as The Magnetic Fields, so it’s not quite as contentious. I listened to more than 175 songs while making this list. But I get it. They have an incredible back catalog, and everyone has their favorites.

  9. um, I don’t want to get over you should be # 1

  10. after reading this I think I need a new heart

  11. Yikes, I haven’t been one to deride these lists, but this one is just abysmal. No “Fear of Trains”?! No “Take Ecstasy with Me”?! Missing half of the best cuts from 69 Love Songs…just, no. No, no, no. Anyone trying to use this as an introductory list to this wonderful band should scream and run away.

    • I think, unfortunately, that by math a “Top 10 Magnetic Fields songs” list would be missing more than half of the best songs from 69 Love Songs.

      But I totally agree. Though I’m relieved to see my favorite, Papa Was A Rodeo, on here.

  12. “Take Ecstasy with Me” was my number 11. “Fear of Trains” is a great, great song, but “Born On A Train” is my favorite from The Charm of the Highway Strip. I was limited to ten. It wasn’t an easy list to make at all. I had a master list of roughly 50 songs.

  13. The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side!

  14. Take Ecstasy with Me, for sure.

  15. I’m all about “Torn Green Velvet Eyes” from Holiday. “Absolutely Cuckoo” is top-notch too.

  16. All My Little Words? I am disappoint!

  17. No “Epitaph for My Heart” = no list.

  18. I’ve never been a big 100,000 Fireflies guy. It’s an OK song, but I’ve never quite been as fond of their sytnh stuff as I am of their…uh…not synth stuff.

    Book of Love is my personal #1. The songwriting is so beautiful and plain. Just the words alone are gorgeous. It’s so sparse, I love it.

  19. I Don’t Want to Get Over You

  20. I don’t believe “I Don’t Believe You” isn’t on this list.

  21. “All My Little Words” would def be my #1. Seriously can’t even make the top 10??

    Also from 69… I’ve been obsessed “The One You Really Love” since I was 16. That would def crack the top 5 at least.

  22. What happened to “Reno Dakota” and ‘Come Back from SF”?

  23. My list would look WAAAAY different, but I do like these songs. You should have done a top 10 from just 69 Love Songs.

  24. No One Will Ever Love You…

  25. This list is fucked. The only song from it I’d MAYBE include is Book of Love.

  26. How can this list not include at least one of “All My Little Words”, “Why I Cry”, and “Take Ecstacy with Me”???

  27. There cannot be a good Magnetic Fields top 10 list but there can be one thats better than this which includes Epitaph for my heart

  28. None of these (save for Book of Love) are on my spotify-made “best of magnetic fields” playlist. crazy.

  29. “100K FFs” should absolutely be on this list, but putting it at No 1 is analogous to ranking “Creep” as No 1 Radiohead: an epically great, landmark song but a poor selection to representatively define a career. Trade its position with “Rodeo” or “Umbrellas” and this is actually a pretty good list given the impossibility of the task.

  30. One vote for “The Saddest Story Ever Told.” Also, how is nothing from Distortion on this list, yet Realism makes an appearance?

  31. The truth is I entered to this article only to watch “Long-Forgotten Fairy Tale” at number one. My mistake.

  32. There are so many potential choices, really – “100,000 Fireflies” IS one of his best, but I can’t believe “Josephine” didn’t make the cut. I’d never heard the Brian Wilson story before – that’s outstanding. Heck – one from that album (“Long Vermont Roads”) would be on my Top 10.

  33. Great list for such an impossible task. Songs I would definitely include would be “When You’re Old And Lonely”, “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”, “I Looked All Over Town” and “Take Ecstasy With Me”, but I’m not sure what I’d leave off. The truth is you could do a top ten for every one of their albums.

  34. I think this list does okay considering how many songs the guy had to choose from. Nice to see It’s Only Time in there, and unlike others, I reckon it would make a pretty good introduction to The Magnetic Fields. Just replace Strange Powers with The Flowers She Sent… and You Must Be Out Of Your Mind with Always Already Gone or From a Sinking Boat.

  35. Pretty good list that covers a lot of ground in terms of their albums. My personal one would’ve included something along the lines of ‘Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring’ or ‘Either You Don’t Love Me or I Don’t Love You’ from the EP. Merritt’s Spector phase was my favorite.

    ‘Torn Green Velvet Eyes’ or ‘In My Secret Place’ from Holiday, maybe, too.

    They just have too many damn good songs.

  36. working stab at a top ten….

    10. i thought you were my boyfriend (i)
    9. all my little words (69 Love Songs: Disc I)
    8. josephine (The Wayward Bus)
    7. i don’t wanna get over you (69 Love Songs: Disc I)
    6. take ecstasy with me (Holiday)
    5. papa was a rodeo (69 Love Songs: Disc II)
    4. with whom to dance (Get Lost)
    3. yeah! oh, yeah! (69 Love Songs: Disc III)
    2. i have the moon (The Charm of the Highway Strip)
    1. epitaph for my heart (69 Love Songs: Disc II)

  37. This list seems fairly accurate. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s at least reasonable. I do think 100,000 Fireflies is their best song, but I definitely would have included All My Little Words absolutely for certain, and Abigail Belle of Kilronan is one of my faves.

  38. 1. I Don’t Really Love You Anymore ( i)
    2. You Must Be Out of Your Mind (Realism)
    3. Grand Canyon (69 Love Songs)
    4. Born on a Train (The Charm of the Highway Strip)
    5. Drive On, Driver (Distortion)
    6. Andrew In Drag (Love at the Bottom of the Sea)
    7. All My Little Words (69 Love Songs)
    8. 100,000 Fireflies (The Wayward Bus)
    9. I Think I Need a New Heart (69 Love Songs)
    10. I Don’t Like Your Tone (Love at the Bottom of the Sea)

    This was really hard to do, and I keep changing it!

  39. ahan it’s rocking!

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