The Magnetic Fields are electronic but still sardonic
If the Magnetic Fields’ postmillennial output has proved anything, it’s that songwriter Stephin Merritt and his collaborators are unafraid to reinvent themselves completely with each release. While their classic ’90s material was typically heavy on synthesizers, recent albums have found them delving into acoustic pop on 2004’s i, feedback-soaked fuzz-worshipping on 2008’s Distortion, and ornate folk on 2010’s Realism.
Answering the Straight’s phone call while in Minehead, England, a jet-lagged Merritt explains that each stylistic turn is dictated by the one that came before. “We generally do each album in reaction against the last album,” he says in a voice that’s every bit as deep and rich as his baritone singing style. “We grew up on David Bowie. We like to change every year.”
On their latest LP, the newly released Love at the Bottom of the Sea, the Magnetic Fields have once again overhauled their sound. Synthesizers are back on the menu, but this time around, the electronic elements are often jarring and emphasize noise or texture over melody.
“We’re using synthesizers in a very different way from how we’ve done before,” Merritt confirms. “Our previous synthesizers were [used] more the way other people use them, which is that they may as well be electronic organs. But these could only be synthesizers.”
He goes on to note that his favourite new instrument in his repertoire is the Cracklebox, a small gadget that he uses by placing his thumbs on electrical contacts in order to complete a circuit. “It’s not something that’s particularly consciously controllable, so it generally makes shrieking and squealing noises and static,” he says.
Although such sounds were previously unheard in Merritt’s oeuvre, the 15 songs on Love at the Bottom of the Sea are every bit as quirky and sardonic as fans have come to expect from their hero. On “Your Girlfriend’s Face”, long-time contributor Shirley Simms gleefully reveals that she has hired a hit man to kill a lover, while the Merritt-sung pop standout “Andrew in Drag” contains gender-bending zingers like “A pity she does not exist/A shame he’s not a fag/The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag.”
Elsewhere, the band uses its array of synths for some unexpected stylistic forays. The bluegrass-tinged “Goin’ Back to the Country” is an infectious electro hoedown, while the closing “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” blends blippy electronics with Spanish guitars for a futuristic take on—you guessed it—mariachi.
With such a diverse range of sounds and styles on the new album, how do Merritt and his collaborators intend to recreate these arrangements in concert? That’s simple: they don’t. “We ignore the sound of the album when playing live, and there aren’t any synthesizers on-stage,” he says, going on to note that the current show features harmonium, ukulele, acoustic guitar, cello, and piano.
Something that fans definitely shouldn’t expect to see during the band’s upcoming Vancouver gig is your average guitar-bass-drums setup. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a rock band,” Merritt admits. “I don’t like rock.”
The Magnetic Fields play the Vogue on Sunday (March 18).