Stephin Merritt Bubblegum that Bites Back
Published Feb 01, 2000Early in his recording career, Stephin Merritt realised he had more songs buzzing around in his head than could be released by one band, so the New York studio wünderkind startled juggling concepts. In short order, his indie-pop synth-rock band the Magnetic Fields was joined by the like-minded Future Bible Heroes, which paired Merritt with his boyfriend Christopher Ewen, the Gothic Archies, a bubblegum goth band, and the 6ths, a band that employs a variety of well-known indie rock singers, such as Lou Barlow, Barbara Manning and Robert Scott, to handle the lead vocals. With so many ongoing projects, Merritt's original band suffered from neglect - he failed to release a new Magnetic Fields album after 1995. Making up for lost time, this month he unveils69 Songs , a whole lotta love songs packaged in a three CD set. Celebrating this abundance of new material from Merritt's premier band, a view of his prolific, yet often overlooked musical output.
The Magnetic Fields first album, Distant Plastic Trees , is released by Red Flame, a British independent label so obscure the album exists for most North American fans as a mere rumour until it is reissued years later. Merritt wrote and performed all the songs, and Susan Anway adds choirgirl vocals. The musical reference points lay the foundation for every Merritt release that follows: ABBA, Kraftwerk, Joy Division and Phil Spector. Magnetic Fields is a happy accident of chamber pop strings, antique drum machines, toy pianos and other keyboards that falls right through the cracks in an era dominated by super fuzz guitar freak-outs.
Merritt and Anway join forces again to releaseThe Wayward Bus . Tuba player Johnny Blood, cello player Sam Davol and percussionist Claudia Gonson, who also serves as Merritt's manager, make their debut as band members. The album narrows its focus to 1950s and '60s bubblegum pop songs, replayed as warm electronic pop tones tempered with melancholy lyrics sung in Anway's unadorned vocals. Merritt releases the band's second album himself and achieves a profile only slightly higher than his missing-in-action debut.
SpinArt includes "100,000 Fireflies," a Distant Plastic Trees song that stands tall as one of Merritt's best known compositions, on its One Last Kiss compilation. It is the first widely circulated Magnetic Fields track.
A new EP, a new line-up, a new label - Chicago indie pop imprint, Feel Good All Over releasesThe House of Tomorrow . Anway had moved to Arizona and flying back to record was too expensive, so Merritt makes his Magnetic Fields singing debut. His droll deadpan vocals offer a stark counterpoint to the mad rush of his keyboard-heavy pop numbers.
Later that year, Superchunk covers "100,000 Fireflies" as a B-side for its The Question is How Fast EP. Band members and longtime fans Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance will soon become Merritt's earth-bound guardian angels; their Merge label releases new albums and rescues old and out-of-print titles from obscurity.
Spring sees the release of two conceptual Magnetic Fields albums: the electro-pop escape of Holiday on Feel Good All Over and the electro-country salute to the open road, The Charm of the Highway Strip on Merge. Charm of the Highway Strip would finish the year highly ranked on magazine and critics best-of lists.
Merge reissues Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus as a single CD in January.
In spring, Merritt rolls out the 6ths for his major label debut on London Records. With joke title conceived to be a lisper's tongue-twister, Wasps' Nests features 14 alternative rock vocalists, including Luna's Dean Wareham and Helium's Mary Timony. Merritt sings one song, too. Barbara Manning's track, "San Deigo Zoo," is featured on the Gap's in-store music tape for May, which gives the song heavy rotation in clothing stores across North America, but Merritt continues to elude fame.
Magnetic Fields release Get Lost on Merge in October. The album features the wall-of-sound epics listeners have come to expect from Merritt, but Get Lost also showcases some quieter, acoustic numbers, too.
Perhaps explaining Magnetic Fields' disappearance from radar around this time, Merritt begins a second career as a rock critic, writing reviews and interviews for NYC-based alternative weeklyTime Out . He has since contributed fiction and non-fiction to magazines ranging from Raygun and Gay Times to zines XXX Fruit andChick Factor .
Merritt's other two projects emerge. Merge releasesThe New Despair , an EP by Merritt's one-man band the Gothic Archies. A droll seven-song collection of grimly fiendish pop tracks, such as "The Abandoned Castle of My Soul" and "It's Useless to Struggle," the EP is more side-splitting than spooky.
The Future Bible Heroes are revealed by Rykodisc's Slow River imprint. Merritt is joined by Ewen and Gonson, who shares vocal duties with Merritt. Less ambitious than recent Magnetic Fields records, Memories of Love is an electro-pop disc that seeks to show love really is the flip side of hate. Call it ten songs about lust and contempt.
In January, Merge reissues Holiday and The House of Tomorrow EP in anticipation of the release of Merritt's ambitious 69 Songs collection. Originally conceived as a live musical revue to be performed with a rotating cast of singers in the plush piano bars and cabarets of New York City, Merritt instead turned 69 Songs into a three record collection. Merritt enlisted the help of four singers, Gonson, Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute and L.D. Beghtol, who perform six songs each, leaving the songwriter to deadpan his way through the remaining 45. The sound ranges from bubblegum to experimental music, touching on most major musical genres of the 20th century. Merritt hopes eventually the songs will be performed as a complete musical revue.
A new 6ths record is ready to roll once the business of what label is going to release the album is resolved. Both London and Merge are expressing interest in the album, which Merritt has dubbedHyacinths and Thistles . Neither label seems concerned about being exposed to potential lawsuits from record buyers whose tongues have been put in traction after they attempted to order the record by name. Hyacinths and Thistles by the 6ths - say that five times fast.