THE SPILL MAGAZINE ARTIST PORTRAIT:
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
The Magnetic Fields may be a bona fide band, but in most essential respects they are the project of studio wunderkind Stephin Merritt, who writes, produces, and (generally) sings all of the material. Merritt also plays many of the instruments, concocting a sort of indie pop-synth rock. While the Magnetic Fields’ albums draw upon the electronic textures of vintage acts like ABBA, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music with Eno, Joy Division, and Gary Numan, Merritt’s vision is far more pointed toward the alternative rock underground. His songs are also far warmer and more purely pop-oriented than the above references indicate, sounding at times like late 20th century equivalents to the catalogs of Phil Spector or Brian Wilson.
Merritt began recording music on his own four-track at a young age, but he didn’t issue the first Magnetic Fields album until 1990, when he was well into his twenties. The first pair of discs featured the choir girl vocals of Susan Anway, but Merritt handled the vocals himself on most subsequent releases, singing in a deep croon not far removed from his European influences. The synth pop quotient also became heavier on those albums, although Merritt always took care to mix in quite a few natural instruments with the electronic ones, often with the help of Claudia Gonson (percussion) and Sam Davol (cello, flute). Throughout it all, an emphasis remained on the band’s pop hooks and eccentric, romantically reflective lyrics rather than the bedrock synthetic rhythms and textures.
In addition to his work with Magnetic Fields, Merritt involved himself in several side projects over the years, the most notable being the 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests album in 1995. Merritt sang only one track himself on this disc, for which he acted as composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, employing well-known alternative rock singers like Barbara Manning, Dean Wareham (Luna), Lou Barlow, Georgia Hubley (Yo La Tengo), Chris Knox, and Robert Scott (the Bats) to handle the lead vocals. After releasing 1997’s New Despair as the Gothic Archies, Merritt finally returned to the Magnetic Fields aegis for 1999’s 69 Love Songs, released as both a trio of separate discs and a limited-edition three-CD box set. Merritt spent the next few years releasing more side projects, including records from the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and the 6ths, as well as numerous soundtracks.
It wasn’t until May 2004 that Merritt and his Magnetic Fields finally got around to making i, a collection of songs that begin with the aforementioned vowel. Distortion followed in early 2008; shortly thereafter, Merritt set to work on an acoustic folk-influenced album, Realism, which was released in January 2010. The Magnetic Fields returned in 2012 with Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Showcasing a return to the band’s classic synthesizer and acoustic guitar pop sound, the album featured the single “Andrew in Drag.” In 2016, Merritt announced an ambitious new album, 50 Song Memoir, which he said was meant to reflect his first 50 years of life on Earth, as well as the 50 different musical instruments used during the recording sessions. In late 2016, Merritt set out on a series of live dates in which he performed the song cycle as part of a show directed by José Zayas. The autobiographical album was released in March 2017..