THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
Songwriter Stephin Merritt enjoys working with themes: escape, country roads, vampires, miniatures. The Magnetic Fields’ House of Tomorrow (1992) featured all “loop” songs. Distortion (2008) was an homage to the sound of the Jesus & Mary Chain. Realism (2010) was inspired by ’60s and ’70s orch folk. And, famously, there was 1999’s 69 Love Songs, a three-disc meditation on love.
There is no official theme for The Magnetic Fields’ tenth full-length release, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, but Merritt describes it as a return to their roots (synths!). In it, he challenged himself to use synthesizers in different ways. “Our no-synth trilogy being over, we are now gleefully using synthesizers in ever more improbable ways, often sounding like electronic swarms of crickets and that sort of thing. What I wanted to do with the synthesizers was bring in chance and indeterminacy, not necessarily in a Cage-ian way where you allow anything that happens to happen, but I wanted to let the more unusual synthesizers and electronic instruments make their strange sounds and then I would edit and pick and choose between different parts that they made,” he says. “So instead of using a synthesizer as a melodic instrument, much of the time I used it as a compositional destructive mechanism, something eating away at the apparent order of my perfectionist arrangements. I would switch on the pattern generator and choose a pleasing pattern and then make it really fast so you can’t really tell what the pattern is but you can tell it’s a pattern. I was very happy to be using synthesizers in ways that I had not done before. Most of the synthesizers on the record didn’t exist when we were last using synthesizers.”
Many listeners came to discover TMF via the 1999 epic 69 Love Songs, but some know that the group’s earliest releases Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus were marked by an art-pop aesthetic that included funny-strange lyrics, extremely catchy melodies and otherworldly sounds. Merritt, a self-proclaimed “bubblegum purist” who writes and records much of the songs himself, seems a throwback songwriter in the modern era: he spends his workday writing songs in gay bars, in tiny notebooks, listening to jukeboxes, coming up with ideas like old-school Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley songwriters. He sees nearly everything as an instrument (frog callers, plastic cups, barking chihuahuas) and tosses off darkly comic, super-romantic, relatable lyrics in ways that would equally impress both Irving Berlin and Morrissey.
For Love at the Bottom of the Sea, Merritt recorded his own contributions in L.A., then the horns, accordion, organ and backing vocals in San Francisco and the cello, guitar, banjo and piano in New York (usual suspects: Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, John Woo, Shirley Simms, Johny Blood, Daniel Handler). The cover art features a stuffed owl named Hootie, but Merritt says that “nothing of the graphics have to do with the music.” The title is also unrelated. “The title pointedly has nothing to do with any of the songs from the album. I did have a song called ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’ but I didn’t put it on the album.”
What is on Love is 15 very brief songs—the longest is two minutes and 39 seconds. “Mostly what has changed with my songwriting is that the songs are only as long as they absolutely need to be,” says Merritt. “At least one song is under two minutes and nothing reaches three minutes. Whereas on Distortion everything is three minutes long. What’s the Elvis Costello album where all the songs are really short? It was kind of a theme, where suddenly all his songs were two thirds as long as they had been. I’ve been listening to a lot of Top 40 music because I hear it in bars and some of it is not bad. Adele, Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga have things going for them but all the songs are at least twice as long as they ought to be. Why isn’t everyone else bored? I get bored very quickly with these repetitive songs.”
There is nothing boring about Merritt’s own lyrics—it is hard to think of anyone writing anything as funny, risky or mean these days. “Comedy doesn’t seem to be a particularly popular mode for lyric writing in popular music today,” says Merritt. “I’m not sure why that is. It’s perfectly popular in all the other media. Maybe people don’t trust it.” As usual he writes in a non-autobiographical fashion, incorporating clichés, familiar references and mixing up the genders (Shirley Simms and Merritt each sing seven tunes, Claudia Gonson sings one). Lyrical themes include escapism, bad love, gadget fetish and abstinence!
In the brutal revenge-fantasy category is “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” a should-be hit in which Simms sings, “So I’ve taken a contract out on y’all/For making me feel infinitely small.” Its sentiments recall those of the protagonist in Distortion’s “California Girls” who is about to go out and maim pretty girls. “I would never actually do any of these things, but I do enjoy my own revenge fantasies now and then,” he says. Also tragicomical is “My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre,” sung by Gonson, which features the lines “It's a place more women stay/Than the YWCA.” Merritt elaborates: “I was looking at the television at a gay bar and Oprah Winfrey was interviewing a woman whose husband had died and she had only discovered at that point that he had a pied-à-terre in town which he was using for lascivious purposes. I immediately wrote down the title for later use. In my version, she’s in a mental institution and is imagining the whole thing. But she’s planning to crash a Boeing jet into the mental institution to effect her escape, then she’s going to track down her husband and kill him.” Another entry in the mangled love minigenre is “I Don’t Like Your Tone.” Merritt says: “That’s kind of a tribute to Caleb Quaye’s record ‘Baby, Your Phrasing Is Bad,’ which was the first use of the phase shifter, or the phasing effect, on a record. Because they knew they were going to be using this new effect, he wrote a lyric about unintelligibility. ‘Your phrasing is bad/And no meaning can be had when you talk to me.’ He’s singing through a phase shifter. That was the genesis of the lyric anyway.”
Escapism is a classic TMF theme: Love contains songs about running off to Wyoming, joining the fairies and exiting bad parties. “We are kind of an escapism theme band. We have dozens of songs about escape and two albums about it,” Merritt says. The town of Laramie may want to purchase “Goin’ Back to the Country” for tourism purposes. “The Horrible Party” is a horrible party song as was Joni Mitchell’s “People’s Parties,” Phil Ochs’ “The Party” and Noel Coward’s “I Went to a Marvellous Party.” “I’ve always liked that genre and I thought it might be a good album idea like the B-52s’ Party Mix but instead of a fun party it would be a horrible party. And because we’re singing about the horrible party, all of these horrible noises that we put in—like Irving barking and police whistles and things—sound fun and enjoyable because we’re saying that they’re horrible.”
Since technology is fueling our need for escapism, Merritt has of course penned a tune about it too. Anyone who has watched her date stare longingly at a 4G will be able to relate to “The Machine in Your Hand,” which suggests “You’re not really a person/More a gadget with meat stuck to it.” As we are living in an era when even toddlers are learning to covet mommy’s iPhone, the most fetishized thing on the planet, Merritt is on topic. “Claudia’s daughter who is one year old is quite conversant with how to use the computer phone,” he says. Merritt has referred to his audience as “my atheist public,” but he may still shock some with his abstinence anthem “God Wants Us to Wait.” Simms gets to sing “Though it would be the perfect end to our date/I love you baby, but God wants us to wait.” Is he reaching out to new fans on the religious right? “I don’t know what the religious right is listening to these days,” he says. “The period of celibacy I had in my early twenties was the happiest time of my life cause all I cared about was clothing and I never worried about boys. I was just talking to a friend who decided to be celibate and he’s having a grand old time.” So celibacy is the new sobriety, the hot new thing? “The new drug. You can be celibate and on drugs at the same time.”
“The Only Boy in Town” is a variation on an Ann-Margret song titled “Thirteen Men (and one girl).” “I figured I would take the only boy in town,” he says. “I wanted to have some female promiscuity because that’s always funny—just mentioning that it might exist makes people feel uncomfortable.” He has said that mixing up the genders is partly to avoid antagonizing straight people and also to entertain the gay people. “Infatuation (with Your Gyration)” shows how adept Merritt is at writing `80s dance-floor tunes. In “All She Cares About Is Mariachi,” Mr. Rhyming Dictionary gloriously rhymes Saatchi & Saatchi with hibachi and Liberace. “I live in a Mexican neighborhood in L.A. and I hear a lot of different kinds of Mexican music but curiously absent is mariachi. So I like the idea of a mariachi superfan,” says Merritt.
If any of this sounds familiar, surely Merritt intended it that way. His use of clichés and familiar scenarios are part of his formula. “Originality is passé,” he told chickfactor in 1994. In 2010 he told the A.V. Club, “Clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague.” LATBOTS is full of silly gems, insanely infectious melodies and indecipherable noises. TMF’s first new album for Domino, after a series of classic reissues, is a pop music delight from a master of American songcraft.
- Gail O'Hara