The Magnetic Fields - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
When it comes to whimsical alternative pop ditties juxtaposed with witty yet languid ruminations on the nature of life, love, and loss no one does it better than Stephin Merritt. When the New York City inhabitant isn’t dabbling in his handful of side projects he is primarily known as the mastermind and front man for The Magnetic Fields. As the principal songwriter Merritt has evolved the group from an electronic alt-pop act to today’s theatrical acoustic chamber pop, yet his endearing vivacious repartee has remained intact, to the delight of die hard fans, for almost twenty years. The Magnetic Fields may seem light hearted on the surface but just underneath they weave intricate morality tales with uncanny insight into the nature of humanity.
Stephin Merritt embarked on his musical career at the early age of 14 when he began recording his own compositions on four track recorders. Heavily influenced by the synthetic textures of Kraftwerk and the frenetic pop of ABBA, the young Merritt began experimenting with mixing the two genres of music into his own heady brew. Merritt formed the Magnetic Fields with percussionist, and future manager, Claudia Gonson in 1989. Their debut full length, Distant Plastic Trees (Red Flame) was released in 1990, and utilized cheap synthesizers and drum machines to provide a melancholy electronic sound with singer Susan Anway providing vocal duties. The Wayward Bus (1991-Feel Good All Over) followed the same thread of its predecessor although Merritt’s songwriting and witty lyrical content began to foreshadow the tack he would take in his later work. The album also featured the first contribution from long time Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol, as Merritt slowly added more organic elements to his synth pop ditties. Shortly after the release of The Wayward Bus, vocalist Anway left the group and Merritt himself took over vocal duties. Third full length, Holiday (1994-Merge) is considered by many fans to be the first true Magnetic Fields album with Merritt adding his deep wry baritone to the early 80’s synth pop he’d developed on the first two albums. As previous albums were somewhat uneven affairs it was Merritt’s voice that provided the missing key ingredient to the band’s sound. Still wallowing in the artistic underground of the times, Holiday was the critical success that brought The Magnetic Fields the notoriety they’d been pining for.
The band wasted no time issuing their next full length. The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994-Merge) was released just a few months after Holiday. As the title suggests, the album was inspired by life on tour with the songs featuring a flair for classic country. The addition of organic instrumentation permeates the album far more than any of its predecessors, although Merritt’s preoccupation with synthesizers still takes center stage. Still on a creative roll the band released their fifth full length, Get Lost (Merge) in the fall of 1995. Instead of progressing further into the chamber pop they’d only hinted at on their previous release, Get Lost retreated back into all too familiar electronic territory producing a Magnetic Fields album by numbers as the band began to run out of creative steam. Around this time Merritt put the Magnetic Fields on hiatus and began focusing on various side projects like the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies. It would be four years until the return of The Magnetic Fields.
The long hiatus proved worth the wait. Released as a three disc set, 69 Love Songs (1999-Merge) was a massive critical success and showcased a reborn Magnetic Fields. As every track tackled the various themes of love over the course of (literally) 69 songs, the album was a semi-concept record that is also considered Merritt’s magnum opus. Released as a box set or as three separate albums, 69 Love Songs incorporated strings, mandolin, ukulele, drums and other organic instruments equally with the synthetic sounds of past releases. The album also found the band taking a fourth full time member with guitarist John Woo. After a supporting tour the band once again went on a prolonged hiatus with Merritt delving into film and theatrical scoring as well as returning to his various solo projects. Merritt also received some mainstream attention when director Peter Hedges incorporated various Merritt compositions in his critically acclaimed indie film Pieces of April (2003), which only increased the anticipation for the next Magnetic Fields album. The band returned the following year with another semi-concept album, i (Nonesuch) with the title of each beginning with the vowel “i”. The album was another critical success that once again increased The Magnetic Fields fan base to a new generation of fans, however, after a successful tour Merritt once again put the band on the back burner to focus on scoring various theatrical production for Chinese director Chen-Shi-Zheng. After releasing the solo album, Showtunes (2006-Nonesuch), a collection of his theatrical compositions, Merritt announced he was at work on the next Magnetic Fields album. Titled, Distortion, the album is slated for an early 2008 release with a small supporting tour to follow.