Sign Up for FILTER Newsletters


You Should Already Know: The Magnetic Fields

By Lauren Harris on August 13, 2010


The Magnetic Fields Stephin Merritt has made a career out of obsession laced with a bit of masochism. You wouldn’t know it to listen to the charming synth-pop albums made instantly recognizable by his basso profundo booming sardonic lyrics about isolation, despair and love, but Merritt is notorious for his self-inflicted strictures. On 1994’s The Charm of the Highway Strip, Merritt created a travelogue, confining himself to geographical landscapes and their corresponding emotional terrain. Five years later, he released his magnum opus, 69 Love Songs, a three-disc collection about, well, love songs (and not love, a distinction the fastidious Merritt is careful to make), performed in various genres. And on 2004’s i, each song title began with said letter, with the slightly compulsive compression of Merritt sequencing the songs alphabetically.

Whereas other artists might find such parameters constricting, these constraints lie at the core of Merritt’s self-evaluated success. “I like to set myself easy goals,” Merritt says. “That way I can work on the actual art part without having difficulty.” He places these constraints upon himself, and then, like some musical Houdini, breaks free from the self-manufactured duress to release an album.

For his latest trick, Distortion, Merritt decided to replicate The Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 debut, Psychocandy. “The last record I thought was important from a production standpoint was Psychocandy. Nothing has sounded shockingly new since then,” Merritt says. The white noise and buzzing feedback of the British-bred Mary Chain might not seem like an obvious influence for the bubblegum pop of Merritt’s music, but he’s long been a fan. “I bought the single, ‘You Trip Me Up,’ when it came out. I really understand that record,” says Merritt.

Since 2004’s i, Merritt branched out into other projects, serving as the principal songwriter in the goth-pop group The Gothic Archies (creators of the soundtrack to the popular Lemony Snicket audiobook series) and the disco-pop band Future Bible Heroes. After a lunch with Nonesuch Records President Robert Hurwitz stoked a desire to make another Magnetic Fields record “quickly,” Merritt decided he would take an already existing stable of Magnetic Fields songs—some penned as long as a decade ago—and subject them to the production style pioneered by The Jesus and Mary Chain. He seems wary of the recognition he’s received for the disciplined adherence to themes throughout his catalog, and he’s careful to point out that “distortion” isn’t a motif. “It’s a production style. If it were anyone else, you wouldn’t think of it as a theme.”

That Psychocandy was a template for The Magnetic Fields is remarkable for another reason: Merritt has made no secret of his distaste for rock music. In a 1999 interview with The Village Voice, he said, “I certainly won’t make any more records that have anything to do with indie rock—or with rock, actually.” It seems he’s softened his stance, now hoping to place his creative defibrillator on the cool, clammy chest of rock music and revive it. “I’m not against rock—I quite like it,” he says now. “The only problem is it’s dead, and nothing new happens with it. Psychocandy is the last event, and that was 20 years ago.”

In many ways, the aural dissonance of Distortion better suits the themes of emotional discord in which The Magnetic Fields often deal. The perpetual roar of “Please Stop Dancing” sonically mimics the all-consuming nature of obsessive thinking. On “Too Drunk to Dream,” Merritt begins with disparaging couplets delivered by a chorale of his own voice before devolving into a muddled yet swinging ditty about drinking to forget. Formerly, Merritt’s output as The Magnetic Fields might have verged on easy-listening; however, in bridging the formerly extant gap between the sound and the emotion of the song, The Magnetic Fields have created its most visceral album to date.

“I don’t think there’s a danger of my being perceived as an easy-listening act right now. Maybe after the last album it was for some people, but this one isn’t easy-listening for anyone. Except maybe dyed-in-the-wool experimentalists, or actual members of The Jesus and Mary Chain.” F