"The nocturnes of dead musicians lull the cities sunk in endless slumber." -- Andre Breton, The Magnetic Fields, 1919
"The stars are still out there but they're all out of light." -- the Magnetic Fields, "Infinitely Late at Night," 2004
Aligning yourself with a bunch of deceased, self-absorbed smart-alecks is one way to avoid being taken too seriously. Stephin Merritt knows this all too well, and his band's surrealism-referencing name is far from an accident. Merritt is the brilliant songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields, a band that is most deservedly notorious for having released the three-disc 69 Love Songs five years ago, a release so overwhelming in terms of sheer bulk that it took no small amount of forbearance to dig through the whole thing. Once you did, it was time to be overwhelmed again, this time by the peerlessly witty lyrics, the consistently aching melodies and the head-spinning "variety show" approach to the music, touching on everything from pure pop to C&W, romantic balladry to Gilbert & Sullivan.
"We did muddy the waters a bit with 69 Love Songs," Merritt admits now. "The new CD only has 14 tracks, so hopefully it's a little more inviting to people."
The new disc is called simply i, and though the name might initially smack of a certain solipsism, a closer look reveals that the title of every song begins with that vowel. In a move worthy of his surrealist forebears, when the pathologically prolific Merritt was faced with paring down a huge number of finished songs to something digestible, he noticed an album's worth of i songs and made the decision in an instant. Further simplifying things, the songs are sequenced in alphabetical order. It's a tribute to his songwriting acumen that this willful formal randomness doesn't hurt the finished product a bit: Every song here is both clever and memorable.
Although on 69 Love Songs Merritt is endearingly awkward, nearly basso profundo vocals alternated with those of MF multi-instrumentalist/manager Claudia Gonson (providing further sonic variety as well as adding a level of jaunty gender confusion to the often blatantly gay lyrics), i appropriately finds the songwriter's voice front and center throughout.
"Yes, and all the keys are pitched as far up the high end of my range as I can comfortably go," says Merritt. "We really just wanted it to be as accessible as possible." This decision was at least partially due to the discovery that the only Magnetic Fields song to appear on iTunes was the band's tongue-in-cheek, gutbucket-minimalist cover of "If I Were a Rich Man" from a compilation of NYC bands doing Fiddler on the Roof tunes. "That's the absolute worst thing we've ever done" says Merritt with a shudder. "It certainly inspired us to hurry up and sign the contract [with Nonesuch Records] and then do our best to make the record count."
And count it does. From the morbidly yearning opening minuet "I Die" to the circus-clown lament "I Looked All Over Town" ("somewhere this crazy hair could be my crown"), each song leaves its mark deep in the pleasure center of the listener. The disco anthem "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" could be the work of Gloria Gaynor and Johnny Cash's illegitimate gay child, and "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin" raises offhand malicious fantasy to a delicate art ("My evil twin would lie and steal / And he would stink of sex appeal / All men would writhe / Beneath his scythe / He'd send the pretty ones to me").
If there's an overriding theme to the record, it's another i word. Several songs refer to infinity or the lack of it, mainly in relation to love's vicissitudes. Merritt admits that "Infinitely Late at Night" was in the running for the CD title, and when it's suggested that the longing for everlasting love is the most romantic of all possible subject matter, he agrees.
"But I always seem to be making a joke of it," says Merritt, sounding a little shamefaced. Like conceptual surrealist games and gender-bending vocal decisions, the pervasive whiff of comedy in the Magnetic Fields' work serves as a buffer between singer and audience. But as Merritt has found out, irony doesn't necessarily play in Peoria. "I actually have found through touring that there are definite regional differences in humor. In the Midwest and in Scandinavia, audiences respond to broad jocularity, like if I interject a 'Whoa, Nelly' during a song, that gets a laugh. Whereas on the East Coast they tend to appreciate wordplay and sarcasm, which don't go over so well other places." I'm reminded of Jim Morrison's complaint that only guys rush the stage in New York. "Nobody ever rushes the stage at our shows," says Merritt. When I offer to help change that at the Numbers gig, Merritt blanches. "Uh, no thank you."
Further reflection on Merritt's music and the name "Magnetic Fields" brings back some material I once read about the study of paranormal phenomena -- "ghostbusting" and stuff like that. I spoke to Timothy M. Harte, one of the scientists involved in the MESA project, which uses electrical equipment to investigate reported hauntings, and Harte said that magnetic fields could offer us a scientific explanation for paranormal phenomena. As the theory goes, local, intense electromagnetic and magnetic fields interact with the most electrically unstable parts of our brain, and we see a ghost where none exists. Or does it? From a metaphysical standpoint, it could also be theorized that the magnetic fields themselves are the physical manifestation of what spiritual types call the soul. So, what I'm getting to is this: Would this make the Magnetic Fields soul music?
"Isn't that a racist term?" asks Merritt, adroitly ducking the question. Perhaps "soul music" is in fact a racist term, an archaic way of segregating sounds. But I would suggest something more universal. I mean, no matter what your melanin count might be, everyone's got magnetic fields. The Magnetic Fields appear Saturday, December 11, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-6551
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.