Posts Tagged ‘The Magnetic Fields’

It starts with the kind of lyric you might expect near a song’s end, a revelation so devastating that many songwriters would feel obliged to spend several minutes earning it first: “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself.” But this is where The Magnetic Fields’ “100,000 Fireflies” begins, and its casual, matter-of-fact delivery of bad news does not relent. The music is skeletal, just a drum machine and some synthesized scaffolding, and it makes an icy bed for the beautiful, solitary voice guiding the listener through “the worst night I ever had.” On this night, we learn, she has captured those titular light-up insects to keep her company, only to be reminded of the “starry eyes” of someone no longer there. This is a song about a life-threatening fear of being alone, and boy does it sound like it.

Susan Anway, the remarkable vocalist on this recording, died this month from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. “We met Susan in the ’80s in Boston, when she was the singer of a local band,” the group said in its announcement on September 9th. “She sang lead vocals on the first two Magnetic Fields albums, “The Wayward Bus” and “Distant Plastic Trees”. She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us.”

Released in 1991 as the penultimate track on Distant Plastic Trees and the band’s debut single, “100,000 Fireflies” was never a chart presence. It did not become famous by way of a movie or TV appearance, nor is it even among The Magnetic Fields’ most played tracks on Spotify. But in the emotional outpouring that greeted the news on social media, it was the song fans invoked most frequently and passionately. Anway performed her role in “one of the greatest love songs of all time with one of the best opening lines of all time.”

It is impossible to explain the depths to which Susan’s voice in ‘100,000 Fireflies’ [has] been baked into my neurology.” I revisited the song myself and instantly teared up, remembering how comforting I’d found it in my early 20s, like a dear friend on a bad night.

So what is it about this song that has fostered such deep and personal attachments over the last 30 years? The answer may have something to do with all the things the song is not.

Stephin Merritt, the songwriter and central member of The Magnetic Fields, didn’t know Anway well when he enlisted her for his debut. “Susan was very mysterious,” he explains via email, “and we were almost never in contact.” Her previous band, V; (the semicolon is part of the name), had a sensibility closer to punk, and songs like the slow-burning, spill-your-guts anthem “1926” showcased a volatile voice, brimming with range and expression. But Merritt had a more minimal vision in mind for his own band one that banked on an audience so familiar with the tropes of famous 20th century love songs that he only needed to evoke their essence, and listeners would mentally fill in the rest.

He approached that mission with an appropriately small toolkit. “The instruments on “Distant Plastic Trees” are a Roland S-50 sampler, a Korg Poly-800 digital synthesizer, and a Yamaha RX21 drum machine, all controlled by a Macintosh 512K computer running sequences,” he explains. Some tracks feature an ARP Odyssey synth played by hand; just one, “Plant White Roses,” adds an acoustic guitar. Merritt added humanizing touches to that landscape by leaning on Digital Performer, a piece of music software he favoured “specifically because it had sophisticated quantization that could make sequences sound honest-to-God hand-played, because I did and do find strict clocks cheesy.”

But when it came to the vocals, Merritt’s guidance for Anway was the opposite of what he’d given his machines. “I sent her demo tracks with me singing over them and strict instructions not to emote,” he says, “and let the lyrics convey the feeling.”

That poker-faced delivery has the effect of making Anway sound stunned by recent events — like someone in a dissociative state, blankly staring out the window, repeating the phrase, “I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me.” And it works. One could argue that by the strictest pop standards, “100,000 Fireflies” is more like a suggestion of a song than a complete composition yet it’s that negative space that draws you close, that allows you to relate to the song so intimately. If the bombastic, maximalist arrangement of something like The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling” suggests that a song belongs to everyone, the translucent veneer of “Fireflies” signals that this is for you and you alone.

Anway’s performance, as familiar as it is distant, makes the perfect center piece for a song built out of contradictions. The melody is undeniably catchy, even though every section (apart from the “afraid of the dark” chorus, which gets one repeat) is compositionally unique: “Including the solo, it’s A-B-C-B-D-E,” Merritt says of the structure. The imagery is often childlike (Who is usually afraid of the dark? Who usually catches fireflies? Is that a toy piano we hear?), yet it addresses pain and loss at a stark, extremely adult level. Those opening lines, which read like a conclusion, are balanced by closing lines that read like an opening argument: “Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things? / We should be whispering all the time.” It’s just the kind of light cognitive dissonance that can interrupt a person listening on autopilot and make them wonder, What is going on here?.

No matter how much one parses its details, there is something about “100,000 Fireflies” that remains impenetrably mysterious, just like its singer. “I would happily have known Susan better — she was fun,” Merritt says. “But she was quite firm about not wanting to be known, which was mysterious enough to be part of the fun.” Thirty years later, that mystery is both the beginning and end of their story. It’s hard to believe, but Merritt says he has no idea what Anway thought of the two Magnetic Fields albums on which she served as lead vocalist, or if she ever heard them at all: The songwriter and the singer that launched The Magnetic Fields’ discography together, he says, had not spoken since then.

As for the song’s narrator and their estranged love, we’re left to wonder about that, too. The song’s final moments sound like the bargaining stage of grief playing out in real time: “You won’t be happy with me / But give me one more chance / You won’t be happy anyway.” Perhaps when things are going well in our own lives, we can picture them working it out, approximating some level of content coexistence, even if true happiness is out of the question. During darker moments, we might imagine them spiraling into an extended shared misery, or cutting their losses and never speaking again. No matter how we come to it, Anway’s vocal delivery is a waiting vessel, ready for us to pour our own emotional history into the outline she has sketched. It’s a true collaboration between artist and audience.

In moments of peak despair, it is such a comfort — some would say a lifesaver — to have beautiful things to turn to that make you feel less alone. She had all those fireflies. We have this song.

Thanks To NPR

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The Magnetic Fields’ three-disc album “69 Love Songs” is a staggering achievement, a cultural landmark, a monument to romantic, yet urbane misery. Calling it a concept album seems inadequate. At once theatrical and literary, it’s a dazzling kaleidoscope of pop and Americana, a pageant of queer (or at least sexually ambiguous) and not-that-queer heartbreak, with occasional flurries of happiness. From track to track the several voices on the album whip from tender sincerity to extreme camp, adding up to 69 mostly great songs that worship, mock and interrogate love by turns, released just before the turn of the millennium.

That said, not all of the “69 Love Songs” are of equal quality, but perhaps deliberately so. To borrow a line from “The Book of Love” on disc one, some if it is transcendental; some of it is just really dumb. Some are captivating love stories with melodies that worm their way into your heart some are maudlin little ditties, some are bad gags, some are booby trapped. Really, though, that’s part of the charm of the album when taken as a whole. It’s unnecessary, quixotic, excessive, relentless, sometimes grotesque, even occasionally genuinely romantic.

The album is an overwhelming text on its own and more still has been written about it, but an album like this demands a thorough inventory, the kind that can only be done one song at a time. The challenge, of course, is that this three-disc album contains a much higher percentage of great songs than most albums of more standard length.

Released in 1999, 69 Love Songs is a brilliant, sprawling, three-part record by The Magnetic Fields, the lo-fi indie collective formed in 1989 by Boston-born, New York-based songwriter Stephin Merritt with a revolving cast of male and female vocalists (plus author Lemony Snicket on accordion). Early albums included tributes to Phil Spector, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Cole Porter. Pop snobs loved the layers of reference: the songs were always about songs.

A caustic and cerebral character (so relentlessly condescending that I gave up interviewing him in 2008), Merritt originally conceived the band’s sixth release as a Sondheim-indebted theatrical revue for four drag queens. The subject, he says, is not love, but love songs. With all the cynical wit of a modern Dorothy Parker, he planned to pick apart all the cliches of the canon while showcasing his ability to mass produce catchy melodies like a vintage Brill Building jangler.

To keep things fresh across almost three hours of music, Merritt dressed his ditties in every genre going: folk, rock, country, indie, gospel, punk, jazz, synth-pop and little outbursts of daft experimentalism. The use of different singers, flipping gender and register, keeps you on your toes. Who’s playing what game now? Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying to you?

Merritt threw every sentimental trick in the book at this record: big swoops and swirls up and down the octave, tear-jerking minor chords, and an attic full of sepia-tinged pop-culture references. One song finds an abandoned spouse seeking refuge in dreams staged by the legendary Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley: “Whining and pining is wrong and so/ On and so forth, of course of course/ But no, you can’t have a divorce”. Another spurned lover seeks solace in his Billie Holiday records: “Some of us can only live in songs of love and trouble/ Some of us can only live in bubbles”. This pretty tune is offset by a suicidal mindset and a discordant piano.

Each of Merritt’s emotional sucker punches is delivered with one eyebrow raised at listeners who buy into his “fraudulent authenticity”. This means that anybody going through a traumatic experience can use the music to flush out all the messy feelings – or consider them from a strangely dispassionate distance. “The book of love has music in it/ In fact, that’s where music comes from/ Some of it is just transcendental/ Some of it is just really dumb”, he sings in a bone-dry baritone, over a guitar that sounds like he’s strumming it with a nail brush.

In the weeks directly after my partner left, I struggled to rock my one-year-old daughter to sleep while repeatedly herding my four-year-old son back into his bedroom. My tears would splash onto his Hungry Caterpillar duvet as I sang along with the romantic lullaby tune of “Come Back from San Francisco”, sung by Claudia Gonson in a rich, open alto. The part of me that joined Merritt in observing the feelings from afar had nothing but contempt for a woman who yearned for the return of a man who could do this to her.

Although almost all the widely cherished songs on 69 Love Songs are delivered like demos, few have been covered. Despite the catchy, FM-friendly melodies and delectable lyrics, they’re so perfect as they are that to flesh them out would be as crass as daubing Dulux over ancient Greek statues. The spaces in the production are reminiscent of the unanswered questions at the end of a good short story. Some days I find the countryfied electric guitar of “No One Will Ever Love You Honestly” gains truth as it echoes.

Merritt’s sepulchral tones on “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” made me hoot. Too busy fixing washing machines and meeting concerned teachers, I had certainly never been through a period during which I could “dress in black and read Camus/ Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth/ Like I was 17/ That would be a scream/ But I don’t want to get over you…”

This is a murder ballad, a Punch and Judy show, definitely not a love song, and therefore doesn’t belong on an album called 69 Love Songs.