Stephin Merritt Albums From Worst To Best
“Relating to other people has always struck me as the most overrated of pleasures.”
Stephin Merritt said this in a 2015 issue of Rolling Stone, explaining the handful of songs he’s written that he considers to be at least somewhat autobiographical. He has spent a career frequently priding himself on the disconnect between the sentimentality of his work and his personal life. When considering his 25-plus years of output, what we’ve learned about Merritt’s life from the (admittedly uneven) documentary Strange Powers and the recently released 50 Song Memoir, the claim becomes more and more dubious over time. Sure, Merritt was never a Rockette, an alligator wrestler, or an ancient vampire, but his essence is splattered all over his storied and frequently excellent career.
For an artist who has always existed outside of ubiquitous recognition, he’s been an ambitious risk-taker. Since throwing in the kitchen sink with his (first) multi-disc epic, 69 Love Songs, he has never held onto an aesthetic for more than two albums straight, has let top-tier songs land on side projects, and has never attempted to alter his notoriously dour attitude in interviews (if you sit through any of them, you will see his insight and good humor frequently crack through). Aside from being a brilliant wordsmith, he doubles as an arduous studio rat, obsessed with sound, genre study, and arrangement. If he’d never written a word and faded into the background as a band’s musical architect, there’d still be much to discuss.
This list excises soundtrack work (unless compiled and released under his own name or band) as it’s meant to represent Merritt’s career independent of larger projects where he was a hired contributor. It includes every album by the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and Stephin Merritt solo. While not a collection of 20 masterpieces (although there are a few), there is nary a Merritt release that passes by without at least one of his best songs. Now in his 50s, he is still creating music that is surprising and affecting, in addition to managing ways to fold in weird sounds he discovers along the way. His career path is certainly long, but rarely boring.
20. Showtunes, Stephin Merritt (2006)
It’s ironic that the one retail album that bears Stephin Merritt’s name as a proper solo release is the one most devoid of his most recognizable characteristics. Compiling highlights from three plays Merritt scored for theater director Cheng Shi-Zheng, Showtunes is the only Merritt album on which every song would stick out like a sore thumb if you took every album on this list and shuffled them into one big playlist. It’s pure musical theater, played minimalistically on a handful of instruments (accordion, bassoon, Stroh violin, bass, and some pitched percussion). His rhyming scheme and wit are still intact, but it’s the kind of album that even theater fans are not going to be clamoring to hear with any regularity.
It’s not that this is a bad album per se, it’s just difficult to consider it in the pop spectrum where the rest of Merritt’s discography sits. Narratively, it’s extremely difficult to parse as well, being that it’s presented in a scrambled sequence. It has some value, though, among Magnetic Fields fans. For one, it reunites the 69 Love Songs vocal crew of Shirley Simms and Dudley Klute, as well as choir appearances from Claudia Gonson and LD Beghtol, and the reprise of “Shall We Sing A Duet?” is a beautifully twisting piece that comes in deep into the set. You can hear a lot of the delicate acoustic production Merritt would use on Realism, and the song itself could have fit nicely into the diverse fabric of 69 Love Songs. Other than that, though, Showtunes is more of an exercise in Merritt’s outstretching into the composer world, which is something he has thankfully come back from in recent years.
19. Eternal Youth, Future Bible Heroes (2002)
Claudia Gonson is the Magnetic Fields’ secret weapon. She is Stephin Merritt’s manager and best friend and served as the band’s earliest drummer, frequent piano player, and even made several vocal appearances on the band’s work throughout the years. As a singer, she offers a great foil to Merritt’s baritone, a strong voice that can be endearingly maternal or juvenile depending on the song. Given her strengths within Merritt’s world, it’s always been disappointing that when given centerstage of the Future Bible Heroes’ second album, Eternal Youth, she was given a roster that’s fairly thin on hooks.
Don’t get me wrong — this album has a few great songs. While most of the band’s previous work pays homage to ’80s synth pop, opener “Losing My Affection” is the first instance where the group comes up with something truly Yaz-worthy. “Smash The Beauty Machine” spins muzak on its head cleverly, and “I’m A Vampire” is a fun Halloween dance song for DJs looking to think outside of box. Elsewhere, though, the album is littered with squirmy synth dirges and a bunch of throwaway interludes. Considering how great this album starts, sitting through its mostly barren tracklist is nothing if not frustrating.
18. Hyacinths And Thistles, The 6ths (2000)
There’s a point in Stephin Merritt’s career where there is a clear trajectory change — where the music of the Magnetic Fields moves away from the skuzzy world of ’90s alt/indie and takes a seat in the cleaner NPR demographic. The sounds are softer, sparser, and more acoustic-based, and the influences dive further into the American songbook than, say, They Might Be Giants. The divide between these two eras is 69 Loves Songs — and the 6ths’ Hyacinths And Thistles is the first Merritt album fully in that next period.
It’s tempting to write off Hyacinths And Thistles as the end result of an overworked songwriter needing a little recharge time, but according to the 69 Love Songs liner notes interview, a second 6ths album was already in limbo at the time. So while not entirely 69 Love Songs: #70-83, it sure does sound like the well is running a bit dry on this one.
There is a philosophy Merritt has been said to go by during the recording process — he has in the past had a sign in the studio reading, “Or it’s done,” as a reminder to stop and reflect on work before adding more to a recording. It’s a great motto to work by, but in the case of many of Hyacinths And Thistles’ songs, “It’s done” might have been an option chosen a bit too often. Guest spots from legends like Gary Numan and Mark Almond are wasted on go-nowhere experiments like “The Sailor In Love With The Sea” and “Volcana!” The Bob Mould-sung “He Didn’t” feels like a demo that could have used some embellishing, and “As You Turn To Go” with Momus is pretty and pastoral but also barely there, sounding like an outro before the album has even taken off. Like every Merritt album, there are great moments. “Just Like A Movie Star” is the most ornate song on the album — lush and warm like being engulfed in a warm breeze — and “You You You You You You” is one of Merritt’s best “wedding day” ballads. These two alone are what pulls this one ahead of Eternal Youth, and they have also made me put this album on many times in the past hoping to find other values.
17. Realism, The Magnetic Fields (2010)
It’s not entirely clear if Stephin Merritt set out to make three synthless albums when the Magnetic Fields released i in 2004. That album is often retroactively referred to as “the jazz one,” which had always been a misleading nickname, just as much as Realism was referred to as “the folk one” in the lead-up to its release. The fact is that every song on Realism sounds very different, but all of it could be described as folk for lack of any desire to articulate something more specific. Very few of them, though, scream “folk” as their inherent genre. It’s this looseness that made the album seem exciting at first, but for whatever reason, it’s on this album that the band seems to be the most uninspired they’ve ever sounded.
Pretty much every Magnetic Fields album before and after Realism has some real drive and energy, but Realism has a passive quality throughout — be it the yawning “Better Times,” the sighing “Almost Already Gone,” or the snoring “Painted Flower.” Most of the attempts at upping the energy are hokey and disposable like “We Are Having A Hootenany” and the “Dada Polka,” although “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” squeaks a fun moment into the middle of the album. Even its best song, the opener and lead single “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” is a retread of “I Don’t Believe You,” but a very welcome one. At the time, Realism was worrisome as it seemed novelty music might have been overtaking Merritt’s interests, but he would bounce back with some pithy gold with the band’s next album.
16. Memories Of Love, Future Bible Heroes (1997)
When listening to the new Magnetic Fields album, 50 Song Memoir, the song “Eurodisco Trio” gives some insight into the formation of Future Bible Heroes as a coping mechanism for a recent breakup. It makes sense when listening to that band’s debut album, Memories Of Love, which sounds like it exists in another dimension devoid of true human sadness with every description of loneliness and despair sounding intentionally ironic.
Much like the Magnetic Fields at the time, Future Bible Heroes’ sound was largely (in fact, entirely) synthetic, but while Merritt’s synth style was gritty and textured, Future Bible Heroes member Chris Ewen made slippery, shiny, ’80s-indebted synth pop that teetered between refreshing and corny. Merritt writes lyrics and sings alongside Claudia Gonson, her first crack at lead vocals that would soon lead to some truly great turns on 69 Love Songs two years later.
Memories Of Love is at its best when it’s going the full Erasure route. “Hopeless,” “Real Summer,” and “Blonde Adonis” are bright, uptempo, and gay as fuck. Likewise, the band is at its worst when venturing into more atmospheric sounds like on “You Pretend To Be The Moon” and “You Steal The Scene,” which unfortunately make for a large chunk of the band’s second album, Eternal Youth (the in-between EP, I’m Lonely (And I Love It), however, is very much worth a peek). The real buried chestnut on Memories Of Love, though, is its title track, a song that could potentially sum up Merritt’s entire career as our era’s resident perfecter of the love song — “Some are brilliant, some are awful/ Some are summer fluff/ Some are heavy Russian novels/ Memories of love.” Merritt would attempt them all two years later.
15. The New Despair / Looming In The Gloom, The Gothic Archies (1996/1997)
Starting off as a one-off project for They Might Be Giants’ Hello CD Of The Month Club, the Gothic Archies premiered in the spring of 1996 with the five-song Looming In The Gloom EP. Of course, much like the 6ths, whose debut album came only months earlier, the Gothic Archies are more or less the Magnetic Fields in a Halloween costume, using the same arsenal of equipment but with a more ghoulish spin. Brief and quite rare, the EP’s only entirely exclusive track, “The Dead Only Quickly” (which was later recorded for Hyacinths And Thistles), is one of the most gleefully optimistic songs about atheism ever made. “It would be swell to see some folk burn in hell/ But when they go/ It’s just as pleasant to know/ That the dead only quickly decay.”
A year later, the majority of that EP was repackaged with a couple more tracks via the Merge-released mini-LP The New Despair. The album is barely long enough to include on this list, but it uses its time well. Cranking the microphone reverb, keeping the fretting high up on the bass, and dropping in some cheap haunted-house noise here and there, the album is equal parts homage and parody. After the muck of the destitute guitar noise drone of “It’s Useless To Struggle” and the jaunty “City Of The Damned,” Merritt delivers a pitch-perfect goth rock tune in “The Abandoned Castle Of My Soul,” cleverly approximating the minor-key jangle of Bauhaus. The track “Ever Falls The Twilight” sounds like an old Robert Smith bedroom demo. Previously used as an instrumental on The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, “Your Long White Fingers” is a ghost-town ballad akin to Kristin Hersh’s first solo album and it stands tall as one of Merritt’s most haunting tracks. Given its awkward release as the side project of an already obscure band, it’s a project that was destined to fall into the $2 section of any used record shop it happened to land in throughout the years. Still, it’s a nice little gem wedged between some of Merritt’s most towering achievements.
14. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, The Magnetic Fields (2012)
After spending the ’00s eschewing the sounds that first put him on the map, Stephin Merritt followed up the Magnetic Fields’ No Synth Trilogy with an album featuring the band’s most liberal use of synthesizers since its early years. But Love At The Bottom Of The Sea was no throwback; all of the synths used on the album were brand-new creations, some so new that they were purchased and put on the album the day they were put on the market.
Love At The Bottom Of The Sea suffers greatly from a soggy center, but the outer edges are some of the crispiest Magnetic Fields treats ever released. The album opens with a brilliant one-two-three punch. “God Wants Us To Wait” is funny, groovy, and sexy. “Andrew In Drag” is a top-10 Stephin Merritt song, full stop. Written while blackout drunk one night and appearing scrawled in his notebook the next morning, the line between gay and straight disintegrates entirely on this joyous pop number about a man who falls in love with his friend who puts on women’s clothes as a joke at a party. It’s the kind of fun gender bender that would have been huge had it been made during the Clinton years, à la White Town’s “Your Woman.” We are then treated to a spirited murder revenge fantasy (a common theme in this period of Merritt’s career) with “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” where Shirley Simms taunts her ex by happily spelling out her violent plans.
Nothing else gets that good until the penultimate “Quick!,” which is as great hook-wise as it is tragic in context, with Simms threatening to leave an abusive relationship before conceding to stay because “Oh, who will pay the rent?” Elsewhere, the album gets stuck in its genre study exercises — “Goin’ Back To The Country” stumbles on its titular genre’s hokiest trappings; “The Only Boy In Town” and “The Horrible Party” seem to be conjuring traditional European songcraft but both sound like paint-by-numbers parody; and “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” might be the one case here where the song could have benefitted from being attempted during the acoustic Realism sessions. It’s not a great album, but even at its worst, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea at least sounds like the crew is having fun — and at its best, it offers some of the finest work in the band’s catalog.
13. Partygoing, Future Bible Heroes (2013)
Of all Stephin Merritt’s bands, Future Bible Heroes have always been the weakest. They have good songs, but their albums never coalesced in the way Merritt’s other work has. In anticipation of their 2013 return, Merritt remarked on WNYC’s Soundcheck, “We used to be the Smiths and now we’re the early Beatles,” in relation to the band’s songwriting, which previously featured a hard separation of music and lyrical duties between Chris Ewen and Merritt. This more collaborative style is perhaps why the songs gel better throughout Partygoing than they had in their previous work together. “Living, Loving, Partygoing” is a head-bobbing dance-pop track, and “Keep Your Children In A Coma,” has a great OMD-indebted hook underlining a characteristically cynical outlook on parenting. In many ways, Partygoing makes good on the half-delivered promise that Love At The Bottom Of The Sea made two years earlier. Having mostly eschewed synths for the better part of a decade, that album was essentially billed as a return to form, but it’s on Partygoing where the instrumentation isn’t merely decoration but a forceful tool. Just about every song works, barring only the grating “Drink Nothing But Champagne.”
While humor has always been a major component in Future Bible Heroes, there are songs on Partygoing that are legitimately moving and melancholy. “Sadder Than The Moon” and “Satan, Your Way Is A Hard One” both convey relatable world weariness over lush backdrops. The real magic moment of this album comes from the heartbreaking “Let’s Go To Sleep (And Never Come Back).” Sung by Claudia Gonson, the song details a double suicide of a poverty-stricken burnout couple. Gonson delivers one her best vocal performances as she calmly accepts her fate: “Our love was deep/ No need to weep/ Just count these sheep/ Let’s go to sleep and never come back.”
It’s very possible that Partygoing will be Future Bible Heroes’ final album, given the cursory interest from fans and how the album was released simultaneously with a cleaning-house box set that compiled the totality of the band’s work. But if so, this would be a great way to go out.
12. Obscurities, Various (2011)
This might be a good time to talk a little about The House Of Tomorrow, the Magnetic Fields’ 1992 EP. At five tracks and 12 minutes in length, it’s too short to get its own ranking on this list, but it’s immensely important to the fabric of the Magnetic Fields story. With original vocalist Susan Anway moving cross country, Stephin Merritt bit the bullet and became the group’s singer. It’s also the first MF release to feature prominent guitars, albeit in strange ways. Like the two records that came before it, all the sounds buzz and warble as if coming from cheap computer speakers, but it’s here where the Magnetic Fields (and 6ths) ’90s sound fully emerges, and given the EP’s non-album status, it has a tendency to fall through the cracks.
Nearly 20 years later, Merritt saved the lion’s share of all his other non-album tracks for the Merge-released compilation Obscurities, a surprisingly solid listen that is far more than table scraps. Composed of 7″ singles, tracks from an aborted play, and a couple other unused songs, the collection plays like a mini 69 Love Songs as it hops from style to style in a way that no other Merritt album does besides his new epic, 50 Song Memoir. The discarded play was titled Song From Venus and it’s walk-down-the-aisle ballad “Forever And A Day” was touted as the album’s single when it was released in the late summer of 2011. While the song is quite lovely, it’s a bait-and-switch, considering nearly everything else on this compilation hails from Merritt’s hungry years as a Lower East Side indie nerd. From the porcelain-polish grandeur of that opener, you are then plunged right into the arcade world of 1995 B-side “The Rats In The Garbage Of The Western World,” which is as seedy-sounding as its title implies, channelling the Cure circa 1983. While finding a better revision as a jangle-pop track on i, the original 7″ version of “I Don’t Believe You” is a quirky, spring-day single, and the rare 6ths track “Yet Another Girl” is so full of life, it’s surprising the CD version of Wasps’ Nest couldn’t stand to tack it on.
As all B-sides albums are, it has its throwaways like the meticulously difficult “When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There” or the grubby Gothic Archies leftover “You Are Not My Mother And I Want To Go Home.” Still, given the previous year’s Magnetic Fields release and the relatively droll Realism, Obscurities is an energizing burst of nostalgia.
11. The Tragic Treasury, The Gothic Archies (2006)
It had seemed for a time that the Gothic Archies were a one-and-done experiment — a chance to make some tongue-in-cheek goth-rock tunes amidst an ever-peaking prolific period. The band’s resurrection came in the unlikely tie-in to the children’s book series Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, written by off-and-on Magnetic Fielder Daniel Handler. For every audio book in the series, Merritt would record one new song based on the story (with a differing range of looseness). Compiled on one disc with a couple of bonus cuts, The Tragic Treasury seems like it would be the least essential Merritt disc in the canon, but it’s a fairly entertaining listen from top to bottom.
Self-aware in its silliness, each song is blustery, cartoonish, and frequently charming. While it’s not likely that any of these songs are going to make it onto a mix you’re compiling for a crush, a song like “Shipwrecked” is at least a plausible choice — a cute daydream about committing multiple murders to ensure you’re trapped on an island with the object of your infatuation. This album also allots Merritt the opportunity to touch base with some distant sounds that had been cast out in the midst of his No Synth Trilogy with the Magnetic Fields. “The World Is A Very Scary Place” is pure Holiday, and “Walking My Gargoyle” recalls the work he contributed to The Adventures of Pete & Pete in the ’90s, his first foray into making indie rock for children. It’s one of the odder curios in Merritt’s discography, but the fact that it produced this interview alone makes it worth the price of admission.
10. Distant Plastic Trees, The Magnetic Fields (1991)
Even if Distant Plastic Trees were the only Magnetic Fields release, it would still be an unbelievable find if and when it was ever unearthed. Sounding unlike anything else in popular music at the moment of its release, it’s a weird and dreamy album completely lost in time. Not quite a synth-pop album and not even close to “rocking,” the songs quiver by on cheap keyboards and broken samplers with erstwhile vocalist Susan Anway singing Merritt’s songs while he hid comfortably in the background. Anway’s voice is lulling but strong, the kind of singer you’d be more likely to hear singing hymns at a mass than on an indie album. Although Anway and Merritt’s tones couldn’t be more different, she nails his ironic delivery from the drop, and given her church-lady vocals, it’s a lot weirder to hear her sing lines like, “I have a mandolin/ I play it all night long/ It makes me want to kill myself.”
While the Magnetic Fields would outdo this album only a year later with the tighter The Wayward Bus, Distant Plastic Trees has a handful of early MF treasures. “Smoke Signals” takes plucky synth guitars and what sounds like an arpeggiated accordion preset and turns it into an odd beauty that echoes with dribbling reverb. On “Living In An Abandoned Firehouse With You,” a sense of wonderment fills the scene, a sense of getting away from it all in a world where only you and your lover exist, a consistent theme throughout Merritt’s career. Not every song works as well as it could (like the broken fairy tale “Falling In Love With The Wolfboy” or the saccharine early take of “Plant White Roses”), but there’s plenty to enjoy in the album’s short run time, especially the immortal “100,000 Fireflies,” which simultaneously breaks up and makes up before your ears. “You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance,” Anway sings. “You won’t be happy anyway.” Even at such an early stage, Merritt was already dropping some of his career’s most biting bars.
9. i, The Magnetic Fields (2004)
In a recent Guardian interview, Merritt discussed the pressures on the Magnetic Fields following up 69 Love Songs. “I knew it was going to be compared unfavorably to 69 Love Songs no matter what I did. As with Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, where they knew it was going to be denounced as no Rumours by everyone in the world, and as a result it’s actually better than Rumours.” Obviously given its ranking, I’m not going to try to argue that i is better than 69 Love Songs, but the Tusk comparison is apt. Much like Fleetwood Mac’s infamous double album, i is a misunderstood, underrated album that, if heard at the right time and place, could feasibly be someone’s favorite Magnetic Fields release. Continuing the embrace of acoustic instruments as on a number of 69 Love Songs, Merritt made the full plunge and made an album completely devoid of synthesizers, launching the Magnetic Fields’ No Synth Trilogy, his first entry in a new phase of his career that thrived on themes and constraints (oh, and every song title on the album begins with the letter “I,” and its sequence in alphabetical order).
Production-wise, the album strongly reflects the turn that the band’s live shows had taken in recent years, a response to the worsening of Merritt’s hyperacusis, a condition that causes loud sounds to feed back in one’s ear. In the past, Sam Davol’s cello would often get swallowed up in the dense mixes of the ’90s era, but on i, he is a frequent lead character, giving songs like “Irma,” “I Die,” and “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore” a baroque pop feel. Guitar player John Woo and Claudia Gonson, now a permanent piano fixture, are more present than ever, replicating the band’s live sound. The album consistently feels like it is being performed by an ensemble rather than the mostly solo studio project it once was, which is a practice that works greatly to their benefit. It’s only on the attempts at sleepy, vocal jazz that the album occasionally sounds flimsy or dull (“I’m Tongue Tied,” “Infinitely Late At Night,” “Is This What They Used To Call Love”). Elsewhere, the band is filled with energy, especially on the remake of “I Don’t Believe You,” complete with a great sitar-inflected guitar solo by Woo.
This would be the last time that Merritt would be the sole singer of the group on record until 50 Song Memoir 12 years later, and the consistency of his vocal presence gives a similarly sincere quality to the material as it does on that album. Like all Magnetic Fields albums, none of the songs are meant to be taken as confessional, but there’s not an album by the band where Merritt sounds more invested in his words than he does here (which could simply be because of its organic textures). On “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin,” there is an impassioned longing in the protagonist’s desire to be exalted of emotional accountability. While Merritt may totally be taking the piss take on something as sincere and schmaltzy as “It’s Only Time,” it works regardless of his intentions (I know at least one couple that used the song for their first dance at their wedding). At the end of the day, i’s only problem is that it’s Merritt’s safest album, his experimental side taking a back seat and his comedy tucked in a bit more than usual, but for what it’s worth, it’s the Magnetic Fields album that you can listen to with your parents uninterrupted.
8. The Wayward Bus, The Magnetic Fields (1992)
Coming a year after the band’s debut, The Wayward Bus takes in all of Distant Plastic Trees’ charms and expands them with more musical contributions and a more consistent roster of quality material. While nothing quite matches the perfection of “100,000 Fireflies,” Merritt moves away from Distant Plastic Trees’ more experimental detours and doubles down on classic pop, most evident in its Ronettes-biting opener, “When You Were My Baby,” which boasts the first on-record appearance of longtime cellist Sam Davol and Merritt’s partner in crime/manager Claudia Gonson on percussion.
The Magnetic Fields were still a couple of years from entering their god-mode period, but there’s much to love on The Wayward Bus. There’s not enough said about Susan Anway’s vocals on the first two Magnetic Fields albums, as they work extremely well in the soft fabric of the group’s early sound. “The Saddest Story Ever Told” and “Dancing In Your Eyes,” in particular, are wonderful torch songs that you can dance to, and “Candy” is a gender-blurring summer romance ballad that perfectly sums up the frustration of leaving a relationship for the benefit of the two partners (think Cat Power’s “Good Woman” from the perspective of a woman singing as a man).
I’ve encountered more than one person who has affection for “Tokyo A Go-Go,” but for me personally, it’s a song that takes the cheap-sounds-as-art aesthetic a bit too far. Likewise on “Old Orchard Beach” the song swirls around a bunch of fluttering keyboards that never seem to land until a grating synth hook comes in at the end. While “Suddenly There Is A Tidal Wave” is a dull, abrupt ending to the album, The Wayward Bus mostly shows an incline in Merritt’s talents as a songwriter and arranger, using whatever instruments are lying around and making it into a highly listenable experience.
7. The Charm Of The Highway Strip, The Magnetic Fields (1994)
In recent years, mining the sounds of the 1990s has become common practice, beyond rehashing the era’s genres. You can hear it in the Windows ’95 reimagining of Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven or PC Music’s worship of all things outdated from the fledgling years of the internet. Imagine now the fact that Merritt was doing this in real time, flipping the the newest (and often cheapest-sounding) digital sounds into pop art.
No Magnetic Fields album is a better example of this recycling than The Charm Of The Highway Strip, the band’s debut on Merge Records, released in the spring of 1994. A concept album about travel, it’s the first Magnetic Fields album with Merritt on vocals, which are front and center over the computer music. On “Long Vermont Roads,” Merritt sounds like he’s navigating the open road with a joystick powered by Casio synths, set to some of his trademark metaphors — “Your eyes are the Mesa Verde/ Big and brown and far away.” Nearly every Magnetic Fields album has a country song embedded underneath the fuzz or keyboard haze, and one of his best is “Fear Of Trains,” which takes the uptempo chug of outlaw country, jangles it up R.E.M.-style, and feeds it through an entourage of video-game synths. Highway Strip also finds Merritt hitting his stride as a romantic on the queer vampire ballad “I Have The Moon” and the immortal “Born On A Train,” a song that allegedly spurred an awakening in a young Win Butler to try to get his new band signed to Merge Records. On the song’s chorus Merritt sings, “I need to go where the whistle blows, and the whistle knows my name/ Baby, I was born on a train,” an ode to insatiable restlessness that has also been part of the Arcade Fire’s DNA throughout their career.
As a kid, Merritt moved dozens of times before landing in New York City as an adult. More so than any other album, Highway Strip encompasses his nomadic spirit and gives clarity to frustrations and anxieties he’s expressed about long-distance relationships and the crippling jealousy that creeps in when you’re away from your partner. On “Born On A Train,” the answer is clear that the anecdote is to merely disconnect as a defense mechanism, embracing instead a “Lonely Highway” to hold in his arms. The duality, though, is what gives the album its heart, knowing very well that, “The roads won’t love you and they still won’t pretend to.”
6. 50 Song Memoir, The Magnetic Fields (2017)
In a Pitchfork interview for Showtunes, Stephin Merritt’s 2006 compilation of music he composed for Chinese opera, he rejoiced, “It’s very delightful! No one asks me if the songs from My Life As A Fairytale are more autobiographical.” Digging out what parts of Merritt’s novel-esque songwriting are based on real events can be a fun practice (Distortion’s “Xavier Says,” for instance, is about an overheard conversation at a gay bar where an alpha male puts a flirter on blast), but in general, Merritt will talk down his work as being more fictional. As an admirer of the man behind the music, it was a wonderful surprise to learn that that, upon his 50th year, Merritt and the Magnetic Fields embarked on another multi-disc epic, each song offering details of each year of his life, his most intimate work by a country mile.
For the past 15 years or so, Merritt’s constraints have been mostly musical not lyrical, which has been intermittently limiting (Realism and Love At The Bottom Of The Sea) and gloriously serendipitous (Distortion and i). With the theme centered on his life story, Merritt’s hands are at last free to grasp any instrument he sees fit to complement the story and the results are some of the best work he has made in years.
Unlike Merritt’s other multi-disc epic, 50 Song Memoir never acts as a genre exercise. These are 50 full-fledged songs, and save for the junk percussion piece “The Day I Finally…,” every song is densely layered and labored over. Starting out light and humorous with songs about his childhood cat, anthropophobia, and the time Merritt first heard “The Hustle,” things get progressively more interesting as he ages. On “A Serious Mistake,” we find Merritt pessimistically pondering the lifespan of a relationship: “When will this comedy turn sour?/ A year, a month, a week, an hour?” (The next track is called “I’m Sad!,” so you can figure out how that one turned out.) We get the DNA of his lyrical obsession with dancing (despite being a known introvert) via his lusty college years on “At The Pyramid” and “Danceteria!,” and see a glimpse of the heart underneath the cynic on NYC tribute “Have You Seen It In The Snow?” and the long-distance relationship power ballad “Big Enough For The Both Of Us.” The real showstopper of the set, however, and an indicator that his best songwriting is still not behind him, is the gorgeous “Fathers In The Clouds.” Detailing his relationship with God and his father, folk musician Scott Fagan, it’s the only song Merritt’s ever made that touches on the subject of parental estrangement. Merritt lays bare his soul while still coming out stronger than ever, set to a choir of chiming acoustic instruments that sound like a spiritual awakening, despite its staid rejection of a higher power.
Much like 69 Love Songs, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer size of 50 Song Memoir. Some songs jump out right away and others don’t reveal themselves until after numerous listens, but when you spend enough time with it, you can find bits of yourself through the life of a famously impenetrable man. It’s the realest he’s ever presented himself, which makes it absolutely essential for admirers of his work.
5. Holiday, The Magnetic Fields (1994)
Despite being released in the same year, Holiday and The Charm Of The Highway Strip have decidedly different sounds. While both display Merritt’s original, warped sense of synthpop, Holiday is fuller, more saturated, and pound-for-pound better. The sounds of the album simply glow as the line between synths and guitars blur and twist together in a knot. Merritt’s vocals are cloudier than they appear on The Charm Of The Highway Strip, and it in turn they become an instrument among the fuzz rather than the odd, clean-toned tour guide of his previous album.
After a short instrumental intro, the hits come in full force: “Desert Island,” “Deep Sea Diving Suit,” “Strange Powers.” These are three classic Magnetic Fields tracks, and it only gets better in the album’s nucleus. Merritt has written songs about longing for a lover thousands of miles away throughout his career, all the way up to the autobiographical “Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” but his best distillation of that yearning might be “Swinging London,” which sounds as though it’s being made by a melted accordion and a circus organ, yet it’s also incredibly poignant and beautiful against Merritt’s melody as he waves goodbye. “Sad Little Moon” hints at the richness of these middle years with Sam Davol’s cello taking center stage, and “The Flowers She Sent And The Flowers She Said She Sent” exercises expert arrangement with building verses that explode in technicolor ecstasy in the chorus. While generally more abstract lyrically than Highway Strip, Holiday is filled with effervescent pop joy that culminates in the freeing rumble of closer “Take Ecstasy With Me,” which is a club-life love song that hints at darkness beneath the surface. “A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes/ We got beat up just for holding hands,” echoes a gay-bashing story Chris Ewen tells in the documentary Strange Powers.
4. Wasps’ Nests, The 6ths (1995)
Considering the minor cultural awareness of the Magnetic Fields, one might think Stephin Merritt would’ve saved all his best material for his flagship brand back in 1995. On Wasps’ Nests, Merritt’s debut album under the 6ths moniker, he either doesn’t care or is just on that much of a hot streak that there simply is no B-level material to divvy out. It’s a sublimely great set of songs sung by a who’s who of indie rock greats, none of whom tries to steal the show — every singer slips into the Magnetic Fields mold like a hand in glove. The sound is one of Merritt’s warmest and most welcoming, with songs like “San Diego Zoo” and “Falling Out Of Love (With You)” detailing heartbreak and disillusionment in tunes that are fun and danceable. Mitch Easter, better known for co-producing R.E.M.’s early work than his band Let’s Active, sings (and shreds) on the cute makeup anthem “Pillow Fight” and Robert Scott is more tuneful in his vocal on “Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket” than on anything with the Clean.
Merritt’s guarded exterior is also penetrated a bit here. On the Chris Knox-sung closer “When I’m Out Of Town,” Merritt writes about how touring whilst in a relationship is essentially its death knell as jealousy and paranoia set in. The quip-heavy “You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” (sung by Honeybunch’s Jeffrey Underhill) might as well be Merritt’s personal theme song, a “fuck you” to anyone with the gall to think he really gives a shit (we find out on 50 Song Memoir that he actually does, sometimes).
One of the major components to the excellence of Wasps’ Nests is its level of accessibility, especially to new listeners. The differing vocalists offer variety and some familiar voices, while never breaking from the Magnetic Fields format. Full disclosure: This was the first Stephin Merritt album I ever bought. I immediately responded to the songcraft but it was especially easy to enter this world hearing people I already loved — like Lou Barlow and Georgia Hubley — sing Merritt’s songs. Unlike his preceding Magnetic Fields albums, it’s completely straightforward. Even as recently as Holiday, Merritt employed sounds that intentionally sounded odd and occasionally off-putting, whether it be the muzak sound of “When The Open Road Starts Closing In” or the exploding beat box on the wafty “Torn Green Velvet Eyes.” Wasps’ Nests retains all of Merritt’s unique production but with none of its alienating detours, and it’s the better album for it.
3. Distortion, The Magnetic Fields (2008)
It’s typically a bad idea when an album’s schtick is to lift another famous album’s sound wholesale. The mere concept of aesthetic homage has a tendency to knock your album to second-class citizenship. The Jesus And Mary Chain were themselves production chameleons, never sticking to one particular thing, premiering with their noise-pop opus Psychocandy in 1985 and then quickly turning the gain down and starting anew on the cleanly constructed (and just as great) Darklands. So when Merritt decided to take the sound of Psychocandy and apply it to a new Magnetic Fields album, the announcement reeked of “diehards only” access.
But guess what happened? The garbled mess of feedback and fuzz that permeates Distortion complemented the music better than anyone could have hoped. The OK songs are good, the good songs are great, and the great songs are top-tier Merritt, on par with material from his golden mid- to late-’90s run. Let’s just start with the best: “The Nun’s Litany.” What could have been dismissed as a novelty girl-group throwback about renouncing chastity for a life of kinky sex is a noise-pop masterpiece, with the call-and-response vocals sounding as if leading a parade. “Drive On Driver” is superb country that skronks like Dolly Parton performing on an exploding television set. Where on the Magnetic Fields’ previous synth-less experiment, i, songs like “Old Fools” and “Courtesans” could have been drowsy balladry, on Distortion, they ache with heavy melancholia and thousand-yard stares.
Where Sam Davol became the key performer of i, so too does John Woo on Distortion, who pounds every note like a kid being told to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” but who just wants to play “Debaser.” Aside from being another great ensemble recording with Woo, Davol, and Claudia Gonson melding perfectly with Merritt, this album’s most obvious star is Shirley Simms, who returns to the band as a permanent co-vocalist. Originally intended to be just Merritt on vocals again, the choice to bring Simms back to redo half the album’s vocals is crucial. Simms as the gleeful sinner is the perfect foil to Merritt’s sad bastard, and while they only meet head-on on the perfect “Please Stop Dancing” duet, their pinging from song to song as the world burns behind them is great fun.
When played live, every song from Distortion is given the acoustic treatment more akin to i’s sound, which was later exhausted on Realism and gave this album’s subsequent tour an interesting perk of being a completely different experience than the album. The songs still sounded good, but there is special destructive magic that takes place right at the drop of “Three-Way” that will never be recaptured in any live setting, and is unlikely to be revisited on any Merritt album ever agin.
2. 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields (1999)
Have you noticed I’ve talked about this one a lot? It’s kind of important. It’s not like no one in the history of music hadn’t made a triple album before, but there’s more to 69 Love Songs’ impact than just the ambitious runtime. Production-wise, this is where the floodgates open — essentially any music Merritt has made since has been ground-tested here first: Distortion’s JAMC referencing (“When My Boy Walks Down The Street”), i’s warmth and organic approach (“All My Little Words,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams”), Realism’s whimsical folk (“The Night You Can’t Remember,” “Time Enough For Rocking”) and Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’s technicolor synth explorations (“Long Forgotten Fairytale”).
Genre diversity and quantity are factors, but the ultimate reason why 69 Love Songs is a monumental landmark is its songs. There are so many good ones. It’s so dense, it could take you a dozen listens before you even notice how fantastic “Grand Canyon” or “How To Say Goodbye” are, which would be top of the heap on any other single-disc album.
Among the very best here, “All My Little Words,” “Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side,” and “The Book Of Love” are three of Merritt’s most beloved songs (at least according to streaming numbers and Peter Gabriel). The former two are perfect distillations of his wit set to earworm melodies, and the latter is an easy contender for a new entry in the Great American Songbook. Genre exercises abound as the band channels Serge Gainsbourg on the enjoyably seedy “Underwear,” Fleetwood Mac on the perfect torcher “No One Will Ever Love You,” and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark on the delightfully horny “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits,” to name a few. Ensemble-wise, the hitmen of Magnetic Fields’ past, present, and future are all present — from John Woo’s thorny guitar licks and Sam Davol’s heavenly cello to author Daniel Handler’s honky accordion and Merritt himself playing about 100 instruments throughout. Longtime partner-in-crime Claudia Gonson, having previously shared vocal duties with Future Bible Heroes, joins guest singers Dudley Klute, LD Beghtol, and Shirley Simms, providing the album with just enough variety to keep things interesting but always familiar.
Gonson is the chameleon of the the proceedings, playing the disrespected wife on the murder ballad duet “Yeah! Oh Yeah!,” the heartbroken lesbian musician on “Acoustic Guitar,” and the self-medicating admirer on “Reno Dakota,” all with the same level of identifiable innocence. Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol operate from the same self-taught theater voice that Merritt invokes but provide gravelled texture and nuance in ways Merritt usually can’t. The Klute-sung “Long Forgotten Fairytale,” in particular, projects itself in ways that would be difficult to picture Merritt doing. On “All My Little Words,” Beghtol sings with a ravenous tremble as if he is delighting in his misery if only for the chance to think about the object of his affection for a few minutes. On “No One Will Ever Love You,” Simms assumes a level of devastation unmatched on any other Magnetic Fields song, singing with a wilting resignation. When she sings, “Where is the madness that you promised me?/ Where is the dream for which I paid dearly?,” you get the sense that she never truly expected to get it either.
Still, there is nothing more quintessential to the Merritt discography than “Papa Was A Rodeo,” which thematically captures the Magnetic Fields in microcosm. Within, it contains bar-room flirtation, nomadic loneliness, sexual and gender ambiguity, and the dream of finding a lifelong partner. Slowly unwinding and revelling in the protagonist’s self pity, the hopeful turnaround when “Mike” responds (in Simms’ voice, no less) is one of the most cinematic reveals in the Merritt canon. At five minutes, it’s the longest song Merritt has ever released, and while calling it an epic might not be entirely accurate, nothing else in Merritt’s catalog reaches this height.
It’s difficult to conceive what Merritt was thinking when he got a $10,000 grant from Merge to make a three-disc marathon album of songs about songs. Would 69 Love Songs be some weird blip of excess on the indie map? Would it end up being an exit strategy from indie rock that could open the doors to musical theater? Was he simply just living in the moment? Whatever the reason, he’s been rewarded with a lifetime of affinity and cursed with a rather tall shadow to move out of. Still, he’s been doing a decent job of rising to its challenge.
1. Get Lost, The Magnetic Fields (1995)
In the mid-’90s, the Magnetic Fields were eking it out among the overflowing alternative-rock cauldron and generating a lot of amazing material at an alarming rate. Dropping just a few months after the incredibly strong 6ths’ album Wasps’ Nests, Get Lost finds Magnetic Fields in peak form with a pristine set of pitch-perfect indie pop. And while, yes, you could take the 15 best songs off 69 Love Songs and outdo this album, there’s something to be said for the humble charisma of Get Lost. There is no grandstanding concept to it, just really good songs by a group that was slowly expanding and hitting its stride. Much like Wasps’ Nests, Get Lost thrives on its ability to remain quirky while not being too niche. It’s unmistakable ’90s Merritt, but the album sounds less like a bedside creation and more studio-oriented. The vocals are more nuanced and the fuller sound is an advantageous complement to some of Merritt’s best hooks and words, with significantly more backing vox from Claudia Gonson. Additionally, Gonson’s percussion and John Woo’s guitar work are all over the album, joined on bass by short-time member Julie Cooper and cellist-in-chief Sam Davol, giving the album a warmer, more encompassing sound.
While not technically a themed album, there’s a tremendous sense of longing permeating throughout Get Lost (it’s only on “You And Me And The Moon” where a protagonist actually gets some). The album opens with Merritt’s best alt-rock jammer, “Famous,” whose refrain, “Baby you could be famous/ If you could just get out of this town now,” is like a mantra for Merritt’s career (he eventually would move to Los Angeles to pursue dreams of film scoring, but ultimately, Merritt will always be more famous in New York). On “The Village In The Morning,” Merritt is coaxing a houseguest to stay indefinitely, even offering, “I can telephone my drummer/ And have her get your things,” a reference to Gonson. The sulking “With Whom To Dance” is a ukulele serenade that wistfully gives up on ever finding a partner, and “When You’re Old And Lonely” tries to win back an ex with threats of eternal solitude: “When your golden loneliness is heavier than stone/ You can call me up and say, ‘My God, I’m all alone.” Written at the end of a five-year relationship, “Smoke & Mirrors” features soaring synths that paint a sky over a revolving beat that sounds not unlike the thump of tracks underneath a train. He reduces said relationship into mere “Special effects/ A little fear/ A little sex.” Merritt sings like an echoing inner monologue in which everything finally becomes clear as he rides on a train, once again choosing travel over domesticity.
The thing about Get Lost’s hopelessness, though, is how fun the album actually is. Merritt once sang, “I’m lonely and I’m loving it,” on a 2000 Future Bible Heroes song, but it sounds most true on Get Lost. It’s a heartbreak album fed through a high school filter. Every pang of disappointment and hopelessness is familiar and comforting in its relatability. No song here sounds desperate — it’s an album filled with realization and dreaming of a better future. Whereas 69 Love Songs and most of what comes after are exercises in the art of love songs (“love songs about love songs,” as Merritt would put it), Get Lost is the last gasp of the Magnetic Fields being a straightforward band, with emotional songs that feel consistently from the gut as opposed to a songwriter flexing. Luckily for Stephin Merritt, that muscle would prove to be one of the mightiest of his generation, but on Get Lost, it never sounds like a job — it’s pure art.