Category Archives: The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Though it garnered a significant amount of praise at the time of its release, the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs remains one of the most underrated albums of the 1990s. A virtual masterclass in pop songwriting, this is the album that established Stephin Merritt as one of the greatest (and most economic) songwriters and lyricists of his generation. What’s interesting about the record is that it’s not particularly a departure from previous Fields’ records; it’s just that Merritt’s ambition has dramatically increased, allowing for his muse to lead him down more paths than it could before. And the scope of that ambition is simply staggering. As the title implies, yes, there are indeed 69 songs here. That’s more songs than a lot of bands have in their entire catalog. Plus, it’s a triple album that runs over three hours long. (It was released both as a box set and as three separate records; however, it’s better and meant to be taken as a whole.)
As immense and overwhelming as the playlist can seem, the key to 69 Love Songs’ success is in its depth and diversity. Merritt tackles nearly every style under the sun, running the gamut from reflective singer/songwriterism and skipping synth-pop to country balladry and coffeehouse jazz, often with equal parts humor and reverence. And even when he takes on more left-field genres like show tunes, vaudeville and Medieval folk, he revitalizes them, making them feel fresh, modern and accessible. But what’s really remarkable is just how consistently impressive the material is. While not every cut is a classic, it’s rare to find a song that completely falls on its face. And even these—including “Punk Love” and “Love Is Like Jazz”—are intended more as novelty asides than anything else.
Of course, you can’t have great love songs without great lyrics, and Merritt’s keen, observational eye and biting wit help to make the record the achievement it is. Much has been made of the fact that he always writes in character, eschewing confessionals for fictional vignettes. Because of this, some listeners have been quick to assume that the album is simply a series of dispassionate parodies. By a certain measure, they’re correct (Check the faux-sexist Irving Berlin spoof “A Pretty Girl Is Like…”). But though there is burlesque here, Merritt has explained many of these songs were often intended as homages (for example, Fleetwood Mac for “No One Will Ever Love You” and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark for “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”). Even more, he even admitted that some songs explore (gasp!) his own feelings, though he’s not saying which. Really there’s something for everyone here: There’s irony for the cynics, musical tributes for avid pop fetishists and honest sentiment for the romantics. But any way you slice it, Merritt’s words are incredibly well-realized and surprisingly deeply felt throughout, whether it be the clever and poignant “Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin,” the hopeless “All My Little Words,” the dramatic “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” or the intimate “The Book Of Love.”
If there’s any real reason for the album’s short shrift of attention, it’s probably because Stephin Merritt’s music isn’t trendy; even his forays into synth and noise-pop are formalist exercises rather than something stylishly edgy or retro. There wasn’t going to be a new wave of Tin Pan Alley pop, and it’s hard to see the young, hip bands delving into the outmoded styles Merritt sometimes explores. So be it. 69 Love Songs is a new American Songbook created by someone who’s memorized the original, and it’s one that deserves to be re-interpreted just as often.
The Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
For three albums and 13 years, Stephin Merritt abstained from using synths on any Magnetic Fields records, releasing the so-called “no-synth trilogy” of i, Distortion, and Realism over the course of the last decade. So by returning to digital equipment for the first time since his magnum opus, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, and by using “love” in its title, Merritt unintentionally makes Love At The Bottom Of The Sea seem like a true follow-up to that record, as if the last three albums were specialist projects, and he’s finally getting down to the real work here. To a certain extent, that’s true, but it’s also misleading. Whereas 69 was massive in its scope and ambition, Bottom Of The Sea‘s goals are considerably more modest. Though the Magnetic Fields aren’t limiting themselves to certain instruments or styles anymore, this isn’t a return to the all-over-the-map genre-hopping of 69; rather, it frequently recalls the synth-pop of earlier Fields records like The Charm Of The Highway Strip. Also, unlike nearly every other Magnetic Fields album, there isn’t a discernible overarching theme here, unless you are counting various pitfalls of modern romance. (Though if you do count that, consider 95% of the history of pop music one giant concept album.)
So though Bottom Of The Sea may be slight, it still offers what makes the band so appealing in the first place. Merritt remains one of the sharpest (yet most underrated) songwriters around, crafting lyrics that cut deeply one moment and have you break up with laughter the next, even as he still refuses to write from the heart. Take, for instance, “Andrew In Drag” and its story of a poor soul who only has eyes for his friend—but only when that friend crossdresses: “I’ll never see that girl again/He did it as a gag/I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag.” It’s true that he doesn’t always hit the admittedly high mark he’s set for himself, yet what ultimately hinders the album is the music and production. While it’s understandable that the group was excited to take advantage of all the new electronic equipment that’s been developed in the last decade, the album’s dense amalgam of rippling noise, pulsing rhythms and robotic squelches sometimes threatens to overwhelm the simple, traditional pop songs at its heart. Merritt can never really be accused of sincerity, but many of his best songs and words feel stunningly emotional and true, like old standards begging for interpretation. Here, though, the weight of his words and music is too often lost in the new wave sheen. A few tracks like “The Horrible Party” and “Quick!” indeed benefit from this approach; however, many otherwise fine songs like “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” and “The Only Boy In Town” are left high and dry. Perhaps it was necessary for Merritt to indulge his synth-pop obsessions with this album—after all, he’d been holding back since the Clinton years—yet since he overdoes it and tries little else, the songs on Love At The Bottom Of The Sea don’t feel as smart, funny or pretty as they should. Still, even if it’s an easier album to admire than love, enough of it works for it to be a worthwhile listen for fans.