The Magnetic Fields is the springboard for the sonic experimentation and songwriting skills of Stephin Merritt, a rather odd, baritone voiced fellow who espouses a rather morose yet humorous lyrical bent that he backs with catchy and straight laced melodies that are influenced almost equally by synth pop, folk, rock, experimental music, bubble gum pop, Tin Pan Alley and even country rock
Merritt made his name with a serious of synthesizer dominated albums that he tended to play all the instruments on but really made his name with the classic, triple album “69 Love Songs” which was exactly that: 69 songs, 23 per disc, that explored a wide range of musical emotional, lyrical and arrangement ideas that broke him through to a wider critical and (somewhat) wider commercial world. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of his busy career and the album that he’ll likely be remembered for 100 years from now.
However, Merritt didn’t retire from music: he even expanded into other bands with The 6ths, the Gothic Archies and even solo work taking up much of his time. However, the Magnetic Fields remained his most celebrated and renowned band and each new disc seemed to explore new ideas and concepts such as 2004’s “I” which was the first of several to ignore his normally highly synthesizer based style in favor of a more folk, acoustic guitar and piano oriented direction.
Merritt is a smart guy and doesn’t do things in half measures: the album is filled with guitars, banjos, pianos, harpsichords and a variety of other appropriate folk based instruments that explore a variety of moods and styles but which focuses on a single letter throughout…I…
The name of this album is no coincidence: Merritt thoroughly explores a more introverted, highly personal style which contrasts heavily with his more story telling based songwriting style of the past. Every single song starts with the letter “I” and eight of twelve songs would seemingly point directly at Merritt himself.
So many people want to point out the “introspective” albums as the obvious “masterpiece” by a songwriter or band: alternatively, people (like me) often find introspective albums to be a lame grab at getting critics to hail your album as a masterpiece.
I find this to be true of “Sea Changes” by Beck which, while a great album, felt a bit stiff and fake to me. A bit too much like a Bowie-esque change of style (which Beck had made a career pulling) and now, after his breakup, it was time to “get for real.”
I could be wrong about that album (and most people tell me I’m a complete idiot for that opinion and I’d rather not dwell on it) but I do feel that drive for creating a pain filled, heart wrenching masterpiece to be a bit at odds with reality.
I have a feeling that Merritt does too: he is obviously exploring more introverted music and lyrical approaches here but he’s not quite bleeding his heart the way I see other artists pull. He still sings his plaintive, simple (and some would say, awful) monotone baritone that doesn’t really pull any heart strings but gives each song a distance.
On the one hand, this avoids the problems with “heart ache for the sake of heart” that I feel from so many albums but on the other hand it makes it hard to really “feel” for Merritt on these songs. Merritt often skirts with emotionality (and the song “I Shatter” makes me cry every time) but it’s usually a more formal, songwriting emotionality rather than a true confession.
Which is why I enjoy this album more often than not: he isn’t puking his emotion all over an overly emotive audience but simply singing simple (but not too simple) songs with introspective (but not too introspective) lyrics giving you a slight glimpse into the mind of one of rock’s true curmudgeons.
For example, take a look at “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend.” Merritt, one of rock’s most “whatever” homosexual artists (he never hides it but never forces it in your face and did name is record label “Big Gay and Loud” or something to that effect) addresses a lover who loved and left him directly. He’s had similar songs but not one where he seemingly addressed a lover in such uncertain terms.
And in songs like “In An Operetta” he combines his love of non-rock music with a seemingly sincere desire to watch a beautiful operetta that soothes his aching heart with its plaintive melodies and simple minded lyrics. Of course, all this talk of “Violetta” makes one wonder if Merritt had somebody in mind or if he was stretching for a rhyme.
“I Wish I Had an Evil Twin” is an intensely darkly humorous song that finds Merritt wishing he had an evil twin that could do all the things to people, the dark things, that he wished he could do himself. You laugh along with him but part of you believes him which makes it rather disconcerting and one of the more effective songs on the album.
In the end, there isn’t a bad song on the album (Merritt is one of our most consistent writers) and while it lacks the “epic” feel of “69 Love Songs” it maintains a similar vibe (without synthesizers) while probing a bit more deeply and touching lightly on unhappy and heart wrenching emotions.
Does it feel a bit like a “Sea Changes” time-to-get-serious moments? In a certain way: the formal conceptual idea of “I” means Merritt probably forces a bit of the introspection that highlights the album. However its diversity of approach and high melodic and lyrical content helps it rise above the doldrums, similarly to “Sea Changes” but without the same sense of “trying so damn hard to break your heart” that I get from “Sea Changes” meaning it actually hits me a bit harder.
Maybe I’m a freak. I dunno. Both are good albums. Own both.
Songs to YouTube:
Any of the songs I just mentioned work fine although “I Was Born” is worth a spin due to its morbid lyrically concept. I won’t ruin it for you but it should give you a feeling of what it would be like to hang out with Merritt for a few hours.