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.