Quickies by The Magnetic FieldsRelease date: May 15, 2020
Label: Nonesuch Records
My initial foray into the genius of Stephin Merritt’s song writing was with the triple album 69 Love Songs and I’ve been hooked ever since. The Magnetic Fields have been releasing concept albums for some time now, the aforementioned 69 Love Songs was exactly that, Distortion was bathed in as much noise as Tinnitus sufferer Stephin could withstand, I contained songs only beginning with ‘I’. Their last release, 50 Song Memoir, contained 50 tracks which chronicled the first fifty years of Stephin’s life. For their latest album Quickies, the criteria was to write short songs, there are 28 and the physical release will be spread over 5 vinyl Eps.
Merritt explains his thinking behind the Quickies concept: “I’ve been reading a lot of very short fiction, and I enjoyed writing 101 Two-Letter Words, the poetry book about the shortest words you can use in Scrabble. And I’ve been listening to a lot of French baroque harpsichord music. Harpsichord doesn’t lend itself to languor. So I’ve been thinking about one instrument at a time, playing for about a minute or so and then stopping, and I’ve been thinking of narratives that are only a few lines long”.
As with pretty much of their previous albums, Quickies contains some of Stephin’s finest songs, mixed in with some of his foulest. Let’s look at the good eggs first, ‘My Stupid Boyfriend’ could have been on the magnificent 69 Love Songs, the three-way interplay between Stephin, Shirley and Claudia twists the lyrics round so you don’t know who is with who, all over the most basic of instrumentation, yet the song sounds so filled out. On ‘Castles Down a Dirt Road’, Stephin throws out some marvellous earworm hooks over an electrified ukulele. His booming baritone is one of the most intriguing voices of any artist. It’s also important to acknowledge the wondrous voices of Shirley Simms and Claudia Gonson, and fellow members Sam Davol and John Woo, who all help make The Magnetic Fields sound as expansive as it is. Shirley sounds ecstatic on ‘The Biggest Tits in History’, a carry on style song bursting at the seams with double entendres. Claudia is heart breaking on ‘The Day the Politicians Died’ intoning over a striking piano that “billions laughed and no-one cried the day the politicians died.” Doubtful this song will be on Boris or Donald’s playlist.
‘The Little Robot Girl’ plays it relatively straight telling a story about an unknown individual, but you will find yourself fully invested in her plight. It’s impossible to say what instruments make up ‘The Price You Pay’, an upbeat ditty full of delicious hooks that manages to feel longer than it actually is. ‘When She Plays the Toy Piano’ has some kooky strings that push and pull with a tune that will burrow itself into your head popping up at the most odd moments. Stephin beautifully sings the gorgeous melody of ‘The Boy in the Corner’ but the song lasts less than a minute. ‘She Says Hello’ is a twinkling beauty of a song with Stephin tenderly tugging at your heartstrings, but again, the wonder only lasts for under a minute. I find Stephin’s truncation of songs that I was enjoying up until conceptual rules overruled most frustrating. The album’s opening song ‘Castles of America’ has a delightful bright melody but it merely teases at only 34 secs long.
The arrangements can sometimes become very familiar and so it can be hard to distinguish one song from the other, but the beauty of Merritt’s song writing is that every song has lyrics and a story that is truly engaging. This is what makes Stephin Merritt so special, even if ‘Rock n’ Roll Guy’ is a bit askew musically, it still has lyrical brilliance to marvel. You get to peek at the lives of some colourful characters and ‘The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee’ is resplendent with a thigh slapper of a chorus, feeling like it’s a classic traditional American country song.
The sad lament to better days ‘Kraftwerk in a Blackout’ is pertinent after the recent death of Florian Schneider and the current lockdown situation. Similarly ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub’ is a morose downbeat song possibly about the end of days. Yet there is the “fuck it!” attitude of ‘Let’s Get Drunk Again (And Get Divorced)’ which has a quirky arrangement of oddly miked up instruments and is one of those twisty awkward songs Stephin delights in.
Unfortunately there are occasions when the concept for Quickies becomes too much for me to handle. Take ‘Favorite Bar’ for example, it’s more of a conversational piece set to music than a song that has any replay value. ‘Death Pact (Let’s Make A)’ is a 13 second sketch that is more artistic statement than musical entity. Similarly the fleeting ’Song of the Ant’ is almost nursery rhyme like, consisting of only the lyrics “I have climbed and climbed ‘til I’m almost dead, now a mushroom is bursting out of the top of my head”. Wondrously quirky but ultimately pointless.
Throughout his back catalogue, Stephin Merritt has also produced some clangers that I just can’t absorb, but others no doubt will warm to. ‘I Wish I Had Fangs and a Tail’ is an eerie horror story/song with Stephin in full on monster musical mode. The sassy ‘Evil Rhythm’ has a jazzy swing but I just can’t listen to it. ‘Come, Life, Shaker Life!’ is a folk song that gives me the shakes with it’s cloying melody. There are occasions when Stephin’s baritone drawl becomes just too cumbersome for me to enjoy, such as on ‘When the Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit’, it has neither a pleasant melody nor arrangement.
As ever, Stephin likes to take to include a little sexual deviation or two in his songs. The hugely addictive ode to desire, ‘Bathroom Quickie’, utilises the combination/trick of using the most innocent instrumentation and arrangements, coupled with lyrics that are far from innocent. I’m also a huge fan of The Hidden Cameras, song writer Joel Gibb often merges sweet melodies with all manner of depravity and Stephin has similar intentions with ‘(I Want to Join a) Biker Gang’. In the hands of Merritt, anything goes and it really never feels that intrusive, because he surrounds any sleaze or shock with the sweetest of music. ‘I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again’ finds the song’s protagonist recalling several previous clients and their various fetishes, all set to the loveliest music box lullaby instrumentation.
However, the limits of acceptance are pushed on the melancholic ‘Love Gone Wrong’ where Stephin intones “let me cook and eat your dick, mad love, mad love, love gone wrong”. Taking things as step further is the chipper ‘Kill a Man a Week’ which decrees that to “kill a man a week, it will be fun, fun, fun”. Just so religion doesn’t feel left out, the suggestive ‘I’ve Got a Date With Jesus’ is a melancholic and yearning song with lyrics observing that Jesus was a 30-something single man.
There are comparisons to be made between Stephin Merritt and another genius maverick American song writer, Tom Waits. Both have recorded some beautiful songs but their back catalogue also contains some music that I simply cannot absorb or enjoy. I also find their voices can be luxuriant and appealing yet at other times, just downright unpleasant. On Quickies, we are often presented with a song that instantly appeals but before you can settle into it, the moment is gone, the concept is infuriatingly allowed to override the music. But that is how Stephin operates, he is the one with the artistic vision and is unlikely to be remotely upset if you don’t share it, or understand it. The other important comment to make on The Magnetic Fields is the sheer expanse of their music. There will be something for everyone, the songs I didn’t like will probably be someone else’s absolute favourites. This is why every time The Magnetic Fields announce new music, my heart races with joy. Stephin Merritt remains an exquisite song writer, inventive artist, creative genius, frustrating fucker and wonderful, beautiful soul.